Following in the footsteps of fellow fantasy auteur Robert Rodriguez, 300 and Watchman director Zack Snyder broadens his repertoire and brings his visual chops (aided by 3D) to this animated adaptation of best-selling children’s book Guardians of Ga’Hoole.

In a familiar tale of the hero’s journey/rites of passage in the midst of a struggle between good vs. evil, we follow a young Owl called Soren who dreams (much to the amusement of his family) of becoming a member of the Guardians of Ga’ Hoole, a mythic band of winged warriors who are believed to have fought a great battle to save all of their species from the evil Pure Ones (genocide is a rare, but welcoming addition to a kids yarn).

Soren’s destiny calls much sooner than he imagines when (alongside his younger sister Gylfie and older, competitive brother Kludd) he’s captured by the Pure Ones and enslaved until he manages to make a daring escape along with a couple of smaller owls, and sets off on a perilous journey to seek help from the Ga’Hoole.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a craftsman like Snyder who, previous to his feature debut, honed his skills working on a number of stylish, big-budget commercials, the first thing that grabs you about this film is how visually sumptuous it is. The owls themselves are beautifully rendered and their facial tics and movements are truly breathtaking, successfully bridging that gap between human and animal likeness in a way I’ve never seen before. This is also a credit to the fantastic work of the voice-over artists, who all do a fine job in helping to differentiate between the large cast of mainly owl characters. It’s perhaps a little disconcerting a first when hear the number of Aussie accent involved (owing largely to the fact that it was shot at Fox Studios in Sidney) but ultimately, this also helps to give the film a unique quality.

For all the time and manpower that clearly must have gone into realising this world and its characters, it’s a shame the story doesn’t have quite the same care and attention to detail. It’s a well-trodden, familiar narrative and many of the themes and imagery here have been cribbed from much-cherished films in modern popular culture that possess a similar, mythological premise.

The sweeping shots of the Pure Ones sinister molten and rock lair could easily be confused with the landscape of Helms Deep, and this is further solidified by some of the owl’s Orc-like appearances and the evil leader’s helmet design, which suggests he would be equally at home perched, Long John Silver-style, on the shoulder of the Dark Lord Sauron.

The relationship between Soren and his mentor, the once fierce warrior Ezylryb (voiced by Geoffrey Rush, complete with added gravitas) strongly echo’s that of Luke Skywalker’s training and guidance from Obi Wan and Yoda. There’s also a lovely throwaway Star Wars visual reference towards the beginning where three dark owls fly past the screen in an almost identical formation to that of a trio of Tie-Fighters (complete with the same screechy roar on the soundtrack).

Despite all this, Snyder’s eye for the visuals is strong enough to expel the notion that what we’re watching is just a greatest hits mash-up. It may come as no great surprise either to know that he also gets to display his now trademark key action slow-mo sequences throughout. Although this device can get a little tiresome in his live-action work, because the visuals here are so gorgeous and otherworldly, it’s use actually lends itself to the content in a more engaging and less-distracting way.

For a film which focuses almost exclusively on creatures of the winged variety, the flying sequences are an integral part of the proceeding and these too are also something to behold. Watching all the dizzying and thrilling aerial shots, you can’t help wonder if they had a large hand in helping Snyder recently win the coveted Superman (re)reboot directing gig.

There are times when the visuals can’t help mask some of the flaws however, and the story does noticeably slacken in the second half, where it can’t match the busy narrative and speedy plot developments which have come before. There’s also very little explanation as to the motivations of Soren’s brother, who upon being given a choice to stay with his imprisoned siblings, decides instead to side with the Pure Ones. We see a little competition between the brothers previous to this, but nothing to suggest a betrayal of this magnitude. It’s a minor quibble really, and I’m sure the film’s demographic will hardly be questioning this plot failing.

In the end, what Snyder’s first foray into animation lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in scope and spectacle and (judging by the overwhelming positive response from the masses of kids who were present in the screening I attended) this is more than adequate for an afternoon of fun escapism for a family audience.