I'm Here & Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole

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By Armond White

Almost a hundred years ago, short story paragon O. Henry wrote “The Gift of the Magi,” a poignant and penetrating love story that was as much a religious allegory as a penetrating commentary on industrial age values. Spike Jonze’s new short film “I’m Here” joins that tradition. Its romance between robots quirkily defines the era. (It screens Sept. 23 at IFC Center and will be available as part of a multi-format DVD/CD/book project from McSweeney’s titled There Are Many of Us.)

Sheldon is what hipsters used to call “a square,” his boxlike head resembles an early-model computer hard-drive tower, while hipster Francesca is sleek and biomorphic. Considering their species, the couple’s mutual attraction is (perfectly) spiritual. Their progression—from interest, flirtation, on to intimacy, then sacrifice—charts the romance of marginals. It gets to the heart of human relations as most hipster cinema is afraid to do. That is its power and charm.

Literally alienated by technology, these robots overwhelm their design and reach each other’s souls—an avant-garde fulfillment of Chris Cunningham’s “All Is Full of Love” music video and Jonze’s “Triumph of a Heart” music video (both are Björk songs, and she is this film’s art-pixie patron saint). The robots have British accents (voiced by Andrew Garfield and Sienna Guillory), which avoids the American smugness of 500 Days of Summer and helps convey estrangement and a sense of anomie in Los Angeles. This cleverly portrays the alienation from feeling that has become a curse on modern film culture. The problem hiding behind fashionable nihilism is the digital age’s immature fear of emotion and sentiment. Jonze’s breakthrough should prove as timeless as O. Henry’s classic tale.

Jonze and Sonny Gerasimowicz, the designer of the robot, convey Sheldon and Francesca’s eyes and mouth gestures via old-fashioned animation that resembles drawn-on doodles or graffiti, signatures of personal expression and feeling. These faces recall the oversized stuffed animals of Where the Wild Things Are (also designed by Gerasimowicz), which also came to mind during Zack Snyder’s amazing Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole. It’s perfect pop synchronicity.

As in 300, Snyder’s bold, animated artistry portrays a trenchant sense of character: good, evil, heroism and cowardice are beautifully abstracted. The Owl faces—large, flat with wide jewel-like green, blue, gold or black eyes—relay as much meaning and thought as watching human faces.

Snyder’s animal fantasy (from a book series by Australian novelist Kathryn Lasky) is a children’s moral tale about two owl brothers—Soren and Kludd (voiced by Jim Sturgess and Ryan Kwanten)—divided by ambition and curiosity, who join the Guardian owls’ battle against the evil aggressive Pure Ones. Instead of facile political parallels, Snyder (like Jonze) cuts to the emotional core. Both directors use animated fantasy to achieve abstract clarity.

Working with the animation production team that did Happy Feet, Snyder achieves visual marvels: from Bierstadt landscapes to Turner skyscapes, this is grave, majestic filmmaking, far from the slapstick of Ice Age or the cynical schmaltz of Wall-E. Snyder employs 3-D ideally, to give the owls solidity and buoyancy. Lovely touches like Soren’s flying lesson show his feathery wings flapping but also flipping the pages of an ancient text; the image ingeniously measures physical against intellectual effort.
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I’m Here
Directed by Spike Jonze
At IFC Center, Sept. 24
Runtime: 29 min.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole
Directed by Zack Snyder
Runtime: 90 min.

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