September 24, 2010 at 1:00 am

'Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole' -- GRADE: C+

Review: 'Guardians' too intense for kids

Geoffrey Rush and Richard Roxburgh lend their voices to "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole." (Warner Bros.)

'Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

A better name for this visually sumptuous, overly literary and ultimately too-intense-for-children computer animated tale would be "300 Owls."

It comes courtesy of "300" helmer Zack Snyder, who has made his brand through violent yet artfully rendered bloodbaths (see also his "Dawn of the Dead" remake and last year's "Watchmen"). "Legend of the Guardians" lays off the blood, but when you see parliaments of owls gearing up to do battle in war helmets, their talons covered in sheaths of sharp metal, the allusions to the soldiers in "300" aren't far off.

And like "300," "Legend of the Guardians" could certainly afford to lighten up its tone.

Adapted from the popular "Guardians of Ga'Hoole" series of children's books, it treats its subject matter with grave seriousness, as if we're not dealing with a bunch of talking owls. While it certainly doesn't talk down to children, it does ask the audience to rise up a little too much to its level.

The film follows two young owls, Soren and Kludd, who are kidnapped from their home one night by a team of evil owls. Soren manages to escape, and he enlists the help of another team of owls to fight his captors, triggering an epic battle between the warring groups.

That's the plot, but the filmmakers don't make it easy to follow. "Legend of the Guardians" quickly introduces more than a dozen characters, most of whom are difficult to distinguish from each other, being that they're all, well, owls. Confusion ensues, and the fact that the pedigree of acting talent is mostly Australian and British (Helen Mirren, Geoffrey Rush, Hugo Weaving and Sam Neill) doesn't help tell them apart.

The battle scenes are severe -- one owl watches as another is thrown into a fiery pit of abomination -- and are more extreme than you'd expect for a PG-rated film. Think twice before bringing along the kiddies.

What "Legend of the Guardians" does have going for it is a breathtaking visual style.

Snyder has always been a visual dynamo, often at the expense of his characters; and working in an entirely CGI world allows him to truly run free. A sequence of an owl flying through a rainstorm is as hypnotic and tranquil as an Enya video.

The film's look can't overcome all its shortcomings, but it helps them go down easier than its title.

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