Soren, a young barn owl, lives in the Tyto Forest with his family: his father, Noctus; his mother, Marella; his older brother, Kludd; his younger sister, Eglantine; and Mrs. P, the family's nest maid, a kindly blind snake. Soren enjoys listening to the 'Legends of Ga'Hoole,' which are mythical tales of warrior owls called the Guardians who fight against the Pure Ones. Kludd berates his brother's dreams, having grown tired of listening to the stories. When their father teaches them the first steps to flying, Kludd becomes jealous of Soren's natural branching ability. Later, when practicing branching while their parents are hunting, Kludd pushes Soren off a branch which forces them both to fall to the ground. They are attacked by a Tasmanian devil (who scars Kludd's face) but are saved, and then kidnapped, by two owls, Jatt and Jutt.
Along the way, more owlets are revealed to have been kidnapped. Soren meets Gylfie, a young elf owl who is also kidnapped. At St. Aegolius, the owlets are greeted by Nyra, who says that they will be divided into either soldiers or 'pickers'. When Soren and Gylfie protest, they are sorted as pickers while Kludd, who betrays Soren, is sent to be a soldier. Soren and Gylfie avoid being 'moon-blinked' (a catatonic state induced by sleeping under a full moon), while the others do not know and become moon-blinked. They are forced to 'pick' through owl pellets, scouring for bits of metal 'flecks', which are being used to build a superweapon. They are spotted by Grimble, a boreal owl, who reveals that he works under the Pure Ones only to keep his family safe and that he isn't really a Pure One at all. He teaches them to fly, but Nyra finds out whilst coming to invite Soren to become a soldier. Kludd decides to remain with the Pure Ones, despite Soren's pleas for him to come with him. Grimble and Nyra engage in a battle, and Grimble is later killed. Following his instructions to seek the Great Tree of Ga'Hoole and warn the Guardians, Soren and Gylfie fly out. Along their journey, they meet Twilight, a great grey owl, and Digger, a burrowing owl, and rest with them in their shared hollow. Soren is reunited with Mrs. P who is brought in by Twilight, having captured her for dinner while she searched for Soren and Kludd. She agrees to go with them to find the Guardians.
The band flies towards the sea of Hoolemere where a flock of crows chaotically guides them to the legendary shrine and gateway of the Guardians, kept by an oracular echidna, who provides comic, but accurate, descriptions of the quintet and guidance to the object of their quest. He sends the owls out to sea to find the island of Ga'Hoole. En route, the band encounters a fierce storm and Digger's wings freeze, causing him to nearly drown in the sea, but they are saved by Boron and Barran, the king and queen of the Guardians who lead them back to the Tree of Ga'Hoole. There, Soren tells the Guardian council about the Pure One's plans. The Guardians are skeptical, but an elderly screech owl named Ezylryb is convinced by Soren's sincerity. Boron sends a great grey owl called Allomere out with two scouts to investigate St. Aegolius.
The band is shown refuge at the Tree of Ga'Hoole, guided by a young Guardian-in-training named Otulissa, a short-eared owl. Soren develops a crush on her, to Gylfie's annoyance. They are sent to attend different classes called 'chaws'. During one lesson in the middle of a rainstorm, Soren grasps a brief hold on gizzard-flying (flying purely with instinct), but loses control and falls towards the sea. Ezylryb rescues him and orders Soren back to his hollow. There, Soren learns that Ezylryb is, in fact, the Lyze of Kiel; the legendary leader of the Guardians who fought and defeated Metal Beak, the ancient leader of the Pure Ones, and Nyra's mate. But Soren is disheartened when he learns that his hero is a battle worn veteran who scoffs at his own past. Allomere returns from his scouting mission with news that his two wingmen were killed in an ambush. He brings back with him two moon-blinked owlets, one of which is Eglantine. Seeing the evidence, the Guardians arrange for battle and fly out towards St. Aegolius. Before leaving, Ezylryb instructs an anxious Soren to tend to his sister. When she finally snaps out of her trance, Eglantine tells Soren that it was Kludd who moon-blinked her and gave her to Allomere, and he realizes that Allomere is a traitor and that the Guardians are actually flying into a trap. The band then follows the Guardians where they find the Guardians subdued by the flecks, contained in a machine operated by bats.
Twilight, Gylfie and Digger fend off the bats sent by Metal Beak to kill the paralyzed Guardians. This causes Metal Beak to distrust Allomere, and, believing he lied to him about bringing all the Guardians, has him dragged away by several bats, and is apparently killed in the darkness. Meanwhile, Soren flies through a forest fire, igniting a lamp of oil, and manages to disable the fleck trap. Freed and recovered, the Guardians fly into battle and Ezylryb goes straight for Metal Beak, who with Nyra begins to overpower him. Soren flies into the battle after spotting Kludd, but Kludd attacks him, throwing him into the forest fire. The two brothers briefly fight while Soren tries to talk some sense into Kludd but Kludd replies that the Pure Ones believe in him like no one ever has, and that Metal Beak has instilled in him the belief that the strong will triumph, the broken will be put out of their misery and that honor is just another word for weakness before he leaps onto Soren, causing them to fall down a tree. Injured, Kludd tries to trick Soren into helping him up, but as he attempts to do so, Kludd attacks him again, only for the branch Kludd is holding onto to snap, causing him to fall into the fire and disappear, seemingly killed. Furious at Kludd's apparent death and betrayal, Soren grabs a flaming branch and attacks Metal Beak, but the evil warrior easily gains the upper hand on Soren. His over-confidence proves his undoing, however, and as he dives at Soren, the younger owl manages to stab him with a flaming branch, killing him. Nyra, shocked at her mate's death, retreats with the remaining Pure Ones.
When they return to the tree, Soren and Eglantine are reunited with their parents, who have just arrived. The band is then welcomed and initiated as new Guardians. Some time later, Soren tells the story to a group of owlets, revealing that Nyra is still out there with a contingent of Pure Ones. He also reveals that Kludd's body was never found. Meanwhile, back in the smoking remains of the canyons, a shadowy figure with glowing red eyes (most likely Kludd) is shown looking at Metal Beak's body and mask. The movie ends with Ezylryb and the band flying off into another storm.
Warner Bros. acquired film rights to the book series Guardians of Ga'Hoole by Kathryn Lasky in June 2005. The studio planned to produce the series as a computer-generated animated film under producer Donald De Line with Lasky writing the adapted screenplay. In April 2008, the project was under Village Roadshow with Zack Snyder attached to direct and Zareh Nalbandian producing. A new screenplay was written by John Orloff and Emil Stern. Production began in Australia in February 2009. The film was developed by the digital visual effects company Animal Logic, following its success with the 2006 film Happy Feet. It features "To the Sky", a song by Owl City. Along with the film was a new 3D Looney Tunes cartoon entitled "Fur of Flying", featuring Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner.
In January 2009, Hugo Weaving and Ryan Kwanten were cast. Snyder said that "Kwanten fitting the role with Soren and Jackman sounded Twilight".
In February, Jim Sturgess, Geoffrey Rush, Rachael Taylor and David Wenham were all cast. Sturgess role went up to Soren while Kwanten voiced his Kludd. Rush voiced Ezylryb, Taylor voiced Otulissia and Wenham played Digger. In the same week, Emilie de Ravin was announced to play Gylfie, but in 2010, she was replaced. Jackman was considered for the role of Twilight, but in November 2009, that role went to Jay Laga'aia, but he was replaced by Anthony LaPaglia.
In November 2009, Weaving, Rush, and Wenham were cast along with Sam Neill, along with De Ravin, Abbie Cornish, who replaced Taylor, Kwanten, Laga'aia, Miriam Margoyles, Helen Mirren and Sturgess himself.
In 2010, Joel Edgerton and Richard Roxburgh were all cast.
The film was developed and produced for more than 3 years at Animal Logic's studios in Sydney, Australia. A team of 500+ artists, technicians, and support staff were amassed to design and develop the film. The film was conceived in 3D stereoscopic from the get-go. Animal Logic's team of artists designed, created, and animated 15 unique species of owls, as well as other forest creatures such as snakes, crows, bats, centipedes, bees, beetles, bugs, moths, a hermit crab, a Tasmanian Devil, and an echidna.
The end credits sequence shows the adventures of Soren, Gylfie, Digger and Twililght as told by the young owls as if they were putting on a shadow play performance in the Great Tree. It was this childlike quality that guided the animation and the interpretation of the story in the credits. The credit sequence was conceived by Felicity Coonan, and was designed and executed over 3 months at Animal Logic's Sydney studios. A small team of artists who had each been intricately involved in the production of the film were amassed to execute the sequence. Coonan wanted the sequence to be a playful experiment in 2D and 3D, because the classic storytelling form of shadow puppets is essentially a 2D medium. The credits were designed to be legible without 3D glasses.
The 2010 Region 1 DVD includes a documentary featurette about owls, entitled True Guardians of the Earth, featuring ornithologists and conservationists, and presented by child actor Rico Rodriguez and character Digger the Owl (voiced by David Wenham). The cartoon Fur of Flying is the second special feature.
Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment released a game based on the film, as well as including some elements from the books, for the Wii, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Nintendo DS platforms on September 14, 2010. The game was developed by Krome Studios for Wii, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 with the Nintendo DS version developed by Tantalus Media.
In the US it took in $5.5 million on opening day, ranking third at the box office in the US. It ranked second on Saturday, earning $6 million, and was No. 1 on Sunday, earning $4.6 million (US). Overall, it earned $16,112,211 on its opening weekend, reaching second place at the box office behind Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps in America. This makes Legend of the Guardians Zack Snyder's first film not to reach No. 1 on its opening weekend in the US. In its second weekend, the film slipped 32% to $10,887,543 and held on to second place, this time behind The Social Network, claiming the title of the biggest second-weekend hold for an animated feature in 2010. The film ended its run in February 2011 with a $60.5 million domestic (US) gross. In the wider market, it grossed over $120 million from its international release, bringing the total to $180,073,390.
Rotten Tomatoes reported that 50% of 122 sampled critics gave the film positive reviews and that it received a rating average of 5.7 out of 10. It reported the critics' consensus as "Legend of the Guardians' dark tone and dazzling visuals are to be admired, even if they're ultimately let down by a story that never lives up to its full potential." Metacritic gave a similar average rating of 53%.
Snippets of the film were shown when the company behind the animation, Animal Logic won the Byron Kennardy Award.
WaterTower Music released the film's official soundtrack on September 21, 2010. The album includes thirteen score tracks composed by David Hirschfelder. The soundtrack also includes the song "To the Sky", recorded by Owl City exclusively for the film.
"There hasn't been anything specific around a second Legend of the Guardians at this stage. We have discussions with Warner Bros. across a range of projects; we have projects in development with them, as well as projects in development outside of Warner Bros. Legend... lines up alongside all the projects we have, in terms of what's the most attractive, commercial proposition to do next."
According to Animal Logic's CEO, Zareh Nalbandian, there have been discussions for a sequel to Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, but nothing solid as to when production would begin, as such a sequel would come in behind several other films Animal Logic will be producing or already is producing with Warner Bros.
Jim Sturgess and Ryan Kwanten have both said in an interview that they would reprise their roles as Soren and Kludd if a sequel ever entered production.
In the 30 Rock episode "Double-Edged Sword", Legend of the Guardians is the in-flight movie on the aircraft piloted by Carol (Matt Damon), who claims his passengers "...think that $300 and a photo ID gives them the right to fly through the air like the guardian owls of legend!” In a 2014 episode of The Simpsons, "Specs and the City", Bart gives Nelson an "Owls of Ga'Hoole"-themed Valentine, showing disdain for Nelson by giving him a card referencing what he considers to be a bad movie.