Gladiatorial owls? Talk about ruffling feathers.

Based on the novels by Kathryn Lasky, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole is an eye-popping, animated 3-D combat film where the winged adversaries wear armor on beaks, breasts, and talons.

In the film directed by Zach Snyder, maker of the stylized martial mash-up 300, the owls are gorgeously rendered. (Every feather is distinct: how do animators write an algorithm for that?) The swooping talon-on-talon contests are like airborne ballet.

The movie is beautiful but, for one unfamiliar with the source material, confusing. I needed an owl scorecard.

In this allegory of good and evil - think Harry Potter with wings - three owlet siblings are kidnapped by Tyto (barn owls), "the pure ones." They plan to indoctrinate the owlets and send them into battle against the "Guardians," knights of the owl kingdom.

Soren (voice of Jim Sturgess), an owlet who has grown up on the legends of the Guardians, isn't sure the Guardians actually exist. But he is suspicious of his Nazi-like captors and escapes their forest bunker. Soren's jealous, weaker brother, Kludd (Ryan Kwanten), is easily brainwashed (in owl lingo, "moon-blinked") and stays with "the pure ones." Perhaps because their snowy-feathered queen is persuasively voiced by Helen Mirren.

When Soren takes flight, he encounters charming Ga'Hoole-igans: Owl-warriors sing whimsical songs of epic battle, a boastful echidna claims to have foretold everything that has happened and will happen. Soren finds the majestic tree of Ga'Hoole (not unlike the majestic tree in Avatar) and joins Ezylryb (Geoffrey Rush), a scruffy screech, in the owl civil war where brother fights brother.

After its soaring beginning, Guardians of Ga'Hoole plummets to more generic ground. It's well-made, but how can you care about its owl heroes and villains when you can't always tell them apart?


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/.