Before 'Justice League,' you have to watch Zack Snyder's all-time best movie on HBO Max
“Can you fly with me?”
This is a huge month for Zack Snyder. The upcoming HBO Max release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League is the culmination of a nearly 4-year-long journey for the filmmaker — one that saw him step away from 2017’s Justice League film only to hand it off to Joss Whedon and have it be changed in ways he never saw coming.
While still bearing some of Snyder’s filmmaking hallmarks, 2017’s Justice League is the rare entry in his filmography that doesn’t feel like it’s the product of a single vision. That’s particularly noticeable considering that all of Snyder’s other films feel like they are — for better or worse — at least wholly his.
And there’s no title in his catalogue that better showcases his talents and strengths as a filmmaker than his 2010 animated family epic, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole — somehow both the best movie of Snyder’s career, as well as the Snyder movie you never knew existed.
SNYDERSPECTIVE is a weekly look back at the works of Zack Snyder in an attempt to understand his vision for Justice League.
That’s right: it’s not just a 30 Rock joke. An adaptation of the Guardians of Ga'Hoole book series by Kathryn Lasky, Snyder’s Legend of the Guardians is a sprawling and epic fantasy adventure. It is also, notably, the only animated film that Snyder has ever directed, and that is… supremely frustrating, given just how comfortable he seemed to be within the medium. Watching an animated film directed by Snyder feels like a lot like watching IMAX scenes directed by Christopher Nolan — you just can’t help but feel like they were made for each other.
Snyder, who has always been praised for his visual style, used the freedom of animation in The Owls of Ga'Hoole to create some of the most beautiful images of his entire career. The film finds an endless number of ways to create stunning imagery as its characters glide through sunlit skies, crest over restless ocean waves, soar through tunnels of harsh rain with lightning at their backs, and dive silently into pits of fire. Snyder’s direction has never felt more balletic, more graceful, than it does in this film.
Guardians is also the film in which Snyder’s use of slow-motion feels the most at home. As a director, Snyder almost obsessively showcases movement, and it’s part of the reason why he seems to rely so heavily on slow-motion sequences. But where Snyder’s use of the technique can sometimes feel egregious or self-indulgent in his live-action work, the slow-motion in Legend of the Guardians feels both earned and essential.
Perhaps that’s because the film’s slow-motion sequences match the elegance of the characters themselves. Where so much of the action in Snyder’s more recent work is punctuated by brutality and massive destruction, the battle sequences in The Owls of Ga'Hoole flow with grace and beauty. By forgoing the focus on collateral damage that so many of his superhero films center on, Snyder is able to more efficiently build strong emotional foundations underneath each of the film’s action sequences and conflicts.
The film’s elegance goes beyond its visual style, though, and reaches into its actual storytelling. In many ways, Legend of the Guardians has one of the simplest narratives of any of Snyder’s directorial outings, and as a result, it manages to avoid being bogged down by the kind of convoluted plot mechanics that hurt films like Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, and Sucker Punch. There are two clear sides in the film, a manageable amount of characters, one central point of view, and a hero’s journey narrative structure that helps the film build and sustain dramatic momentum throughout the entirety of its runtime.
Crucially, Guardians doesn’t utilize the same nihilistic and brooding tone seen in so many of Snyder’s other movies. It’s a family film with a PG rating, and while it occasionally ventures into darker territory, it never loses track of the heart and message beating at the center of it.
Now, none of this is to say that Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole is a perfect film. (There’s one montage about halfway through it that is set to an Owl City song... and it briefly threatens to throw the entire experience off the rails.) However, Guardians is the best example of what Snyder can do when he’s at his most focused and restrained, which makes it that much more of a shame that it wasn’t a success at the box office when it was released.
With the current renewed interest in Snyder, one hopes he can extend past his work within the DCEU and sail back into the creative winds of his other efforts — namely, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole. It is unlike anything else he’s ever made, a stand-out entry in his filmography over a decade after its original release.
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole is streaming now on HBO Max.