We’ll be honest – when we saw the trailer for Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga’Hoole it looked to us an awful lot like Hedwig: The Movie.
Having now seen 20 minutes of impressive 3D footage introduced by Watchmen and 300 director Zack Snyder, though, we feel a lot more positive about the latest cartoon opus from animation studio Animal Logic.
Being the Australian outfit that brought us Happy Feet in 2006, these guys are ahead of the flock when it comes to creating convincing avian characters in CGI.
Small wonder, then, that the owlish protagonists of this heroic fantasy are beautifully rendered from the fluff on their heads to the talons on their feet.
They’re also considerably more expressive than one might assume from creatures best known for their rather freaky stillness, tiny beaks and heads that rotate fully enough to earn them walk-ons in an Exorcist remake.
There are 15 novels in Kathryn Lasky’s Guardians of Ga’Hoole series, meaning there is plenty of room for sequels if Snyder’s film takes flight at the box office.
From the looks of it, though, screenwriters John Orloff and Emil Stern have opted for a streamlined, linear story conflating incidents and episodes from the first three books in Lasky’s series.
This isn’t always a successful scenario, as anyone who remembers Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events can attest.
But we doubt anyone will care too much, Lasky’s books being a fairly minor entry in the young adult literature canon compared to Daniel Handler’s bestsellers.
What’s with that apostrophe, though? We assume Ga’Hoole is meant to be a phonetic reading of an owl’s hoot, but that wasn’t made clear in the footage we saw.
Is it just us, or might that cumbersome title end up being a bit of a liability?
If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll have grasped that the hero of Legends is a young owl captivated by his father’s epic stories of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole.
Decked out in natty golden helmets that make them look like feathery incarnations of King Leonidas, these winged warriors are the ancient protectors of owlkind who once saved the species from the evil Pure Ones bent on enslaving them.
Soren (voiced by Britain’s Jim Sturgess, from 21 and Across The Universe) is certain that the Guardians still exist and dreams of one day joining their ranks.
But his idealism is mocked by older brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten from True Blood), a bad egg who has grown up resentful of the way Soren is always daddy’s favourite.
In the footage we saw, Kludd’s enmity leads to both him and his sibling falling out of their treetop sanctuary onto the scary forest floor below.
There they are scooped up by the marauding Pure Ones and flown off to St Aggie’s, a kind of evil Hogwarts where young owls are trained to become soldiers in a villainous bird army.
Also along the ride, very much against her will, is Gylfie (Emily Barclay) – a tiny elf owl who pushes all the same cute buttons as Happy Feet’s Mumble.
This is the first time we’ve seen the owls in flight and it’s a breathtaking sight, made all the more so here by a spectacular sunset backdrop.
And there’s more stylish pirouetting in the next sequence, which sees Kludd compete with fellow St Aggie’s hopefuls in a challenge set by ruthless snow owl Nyra (Dame Helen Mirren).
Being a race to see who can first clamp their talons on a fluttering bluebird, we won’t be the only ones to see parallels with the Quidditch scenes from Harry Potter.
While Kludd is off being indoctrinated in the Pure Ones’ Nietzschean ideology, Soren and Gylfie find an ally in the form of kindly tutor Grimble (Hugo Weaving).
It is Grimble who teaches them how to fly for themselves – a skill they require almost immediately when Nyra turns up to overhear her underling bad-mouthing her.
Grimble makes a diversion that allows Soren and Gylfie to flee, Kludd having by now thrown his lot in with Nyra.
Cue more eye-popping airborne action as our heroes are pursued through the caves of St Aggie’s by Nyra’s sharp-clawed cohorts.
Luckily their puny size works in their favour, allowing them to escape through a tiny crevice too small for the birds on their tail.
Out in the open, though, they soon become lost and exhausted – only to be rescued by a Guardian and guided to the Great Tree of Ga’Hoole that his compadres call home.
Talk is cheep
By now we're probably about halfway through the story. And up on screen, Snyder is getting plenty animated as he tells us about the Council of the Guardians who rule the roost at the Great Tree.
Curiously, though, his exuberance isn't matched by the sequence that follows, a talky interlude in which Soren struggles to persuade the sceptical council that Nyra is up to no good.
It’s here we meet Metalbeak (Sam Neill) and Ezylryb (Geoffrey Rush), bigwigs in the Ga’Hoole hierarchy with different opinions on how best to proceed.
We also meet Digger (David Wenham), a dotty burrowing owl whose tentative grasp on reality offers some comic relief.
That’s a lot of characters to absorb in a short space of time, and we have to admit we had trouble keeping track of them all.
We have no doubt, though, that all will be crystal clear in the finished movie.
By now we’ve seen a lot of swooping, soaring, screeching and shrieking. But what we haven’t seen is anything truly, authentically jaw-dropping.
Luckily, that arrives in a final scene that sees Soren taught how to fly like a Guardian by his new mentor Ezylryb.
In driving rain, Soren learns not to battle the elements but give into them and become one with nature – to use the Force, if you like.
This allows him to finally cut loose in a stunning slo-mo sequence set amidst the most convincing rainstorm we’ve ever seen created in this hi-tech medium.
It’s here too that the point of making Legends Of The Guardians in 3D becomes clear, Soren’s wingtips appearing close enough at one stage to almost brush our faces.
We’re not too sure if this scene is representative of the whole. But it was certainly the most impressive of the five snippets we saw.
We’re yet to be convinced that the world is crying out for an animated owl movie. But we have to admit we liked what we saw of Legends Of The Guardians.
The story boasts an epic, timeless quality that’s more in keeping with classic House of Mouse cartoonery than the more jokey efforts of DreamWorks and others.
It also feels quite dark, the rivalry between good brother Soren and bad brother Kludd introducing a Cain and Abel element we haven’t seen since The Lion King.
The strong voice cast is another plus point, even if it does feel skewed a little towards British and Antipodean talents.
It is the birds themselves that are the film’s strongest asset, though, innumerable man hours having evidently been spent on every downy feather and undulating wing.
Hardly surprising, then, that Warner Brothers are already producing fluffy character tie-in toys like the two pictured here.