Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole may bill itself as coming from the studio that brought us Happy Feet, but there ain’t much happy about it.

Directed by Zack Snyder (who gave the adults of this world the bloodsplatter-fest 300), it’s a dark, highly-violent, death-heavy film, full of on visual slickness and 3D whiz-bangery but completely lacking when it comes to a coherent, interesting story.

Based on the popular books by Kathryn Lasky, Guardians begins with two young brother owls, Kludd and Soren, learning to fly. When they crash to the ground, they’re immediately snapped up by The Pure Ones, bad owls who fly around snapping up young’uns to indoctrinate with their evil ways.

The indoctrination (or moon-blinking, as it’s called in Ga’Hoole) is so successful that Kludd goes over to the dark side. Soren, though, escapes and eventually makes his way to The Guardians, the good owls who are biding their time until the inevitable owl civil war (which takes up the last 45 minutes of the movie).

Visually, Avatar’s got nothing on Guardians. It’s easily one of the most rub-your-eyeballs-and-blink movies to hit screens this year. The animation is so good, in fact, that it makes Pixar frankly look a little pedestrian. The 3D is well worth it, and anyone familiar with 300 or Snyder’s take on Watchmen, knows that he’s never one to skimp in the eye candy department.

What Guardians showcases in razzle-dazzle, though, it lacks in almost everything else. Yes, it’s a ‘kids’ movie, but does that always have to mean there can’t be an interesting story? There was room here for an entertaining, touching film about family and friendships, but it’s pretty much entirely squandered in favor of slo-mo Matrix-like scenes of owls attacking each other with talons bared. And when there is a story, it’s a truly incomprehensible tale about shiny, blue metal fragments (that come from owl puke) being put together to make a groovy lightshow that’s supposedly the bane of all owlkind.

And would it have killed screenwriters John Orloff and Emil Stern to have at least a glimmer of a sense of humor? A couple of adorable, goofy owls are introduced, ostensibly as comic relief, but their best moment is when oone turns to another and offers the gem, “Don’t you like my owl jokes? They’re a hoot!” Ouch.

When it comes down to it, none of this really matters, of course. Twelve-year-old boys aren’t begging their parents to see this so they can experience a sympathetic tale from the annals of owldom. They’re in it for the wicked-cool 3D effects and the owl warfare, and they won’t be disappointed on either count.

Based on the level of violence, the tense moments, and the relative bad-ness of the bad guys, I’m guessing Guardians’ target audience is fifth grade—and even that may be pushing it.

It may be from the folks behind Happy Feet, but Legend of the Guardians is a heck of a lot closer to 300 than it is to a cute little animal movie.

2/5 stars (4/5 stars if you’re 12.)