Who's In It: The Voices of Helen Mirren, Sam Neill, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, David Wenham, Emily Barclay, Abbie Cornish, Joel Edgerton, Ryan Kwanten, Anthony LaPaglia
The Basics: Young owl Soren, an idealistic sort (the movie calls him a "dreamer," something you can just ignore if you want, tough as that may be) embarks on a heroic journey that takes him from the clutches of an evil owl clan known as The Pure Ones--lead by the excellently-named villain Metal Beak--to the legendary lair of the Guardians of Ga'Hoole. The Guardians are the good guys and some seriously violent bird fights follow, but so do dark and complicated ideas about betrayal, sacrifice, war and courage, a kind of animated 300 for adults and mature children. In spite of the marketing that relates it to Happy Feet, it's tough-minded and anything but happy. No owls sing Freddy Mercury songs.
What's The Deal: Once this film puts aside its identity conflict about its target audience and heads deeper into war and weird, sometimes trippy, mystical experiences for its owl heroes, it becomes the kind of animated story that, in spite of it's standard-issue hero's journey template, makes you glad that it exists. It layers idiosyncrasy on top of unpredictability on top of a pervasive feeling of doom and fear that you don't really see a lot in movies aimed at young audiences. And I think kids appreciate that. They know when a film is asking them to reach for the high shelf. It makes them feel grown up. In other words it's not an Alvin and the Chipmunks sort of thing. Pretty much any one of these owls would eat those rodents for breakfast and spit out their fur and bones in about twenty seconds.
Also? Sometimes Kind Of Confusing: Not only does it throw a lot of myth-creating plot at you, including something about sparkling, transformative "flecks" used to build up evil owl powers, bats with murderous blades for wings, magical metal owl helmets, psychedelic rain storms and lots of screeching, wing-flapping battle sequences, but the commitment to a high quality of animation--it's seriously detailed and beautiful from start to finish--means that the huge cast of similar-looking owls with distinct personalities still tend to blur into each other. Like it could take two viewings to keep them all straight in your head. You can consider that a problem or a selling point, depending on your perspective.
How Young Is Too Young: Obviously you should already know what your child can deal with, but in general little ones are going to be terrified across the board, so use that expensive 3-D ticket money for another round of Despicable Me or Toy Story 3 instead. I'm figuring, based on my own sturdy seven-year-old nephew's tolerance and appetite for this sort of thing, that kids that age and older won't wind up with nightmares.