Settling in to watch Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole there are already some pretty glaring clues that this isn’t going to be your typical animated children’s movie jaunt.

First of all, there’s the title, which can be a tongue-twisting challenge for adults, let alone folks who spend their days writing the ABCs in crayon. Then there’s the film’s director, Zack Snyder, a visionary whose previous work includes the blood bath epic 300 and graphic novel opus Watchmen. Any man who’s willing to include a central character with a bright blue glowing schlong isn’t the type of guy who’s going to turn in your usual Saturday matinee kiddie fare.

And that’s a good thing.

Based on Kathryn Lasky’s series of young adult fantasy books, Guardians of Ga’Hoole, Snyder’s 3-D animated spectacular is about Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess), a young barn owl who lives in the peaceful forest of Tyto. Kidnapped by the evil Pure Ones, lead by Metalbeak (Joel Edgerton) and Nyra (Helen Mirren), Soren escapes and finds himself confronted by an onslaught of Harry Potter-esque challenges, like taking his first flight as he sets off on a dangerous adventure that leads to the mythical Great Ga’Hoole Tree.

Darker and more challenging than most recent offerings by other animation studios, Legend of the Guardians has no qualms putting animal kingdom norms unflinchingly front and center. For example, one of the film’s first frames is of an owl stealthily swooping in and snatching an unsuspecting mouse in its talons before flying into a hollow and announcing, “Dinner!” Hey kids, who wants to learn about a lil’ thing called “The Circle of Life?” But this ain’t The Lion King.

From mouse meals to fierce mid-air battles, Snyder, who admits he took a page from his 300 days, strapping his fight choreography team into homemade cardboard owl wings in order to work out a samurai-like battle style he felt was befitting an ancient nation of sky predators, never shies away from the fragility of life in nature. Thoughtful and mature, the director instead created a fantasy realm firmly rooted in reality, even if it does feature talking animals.

From the rich, lush texture of each owl’s brilliant and beautiful feathers, a jaw-dropping digital process that took two of the film’s three years of production to perfect and should surely win them acknowledgement come award season, to the Magic Hour hues which watercolor each Maxfield Parrish backdrop, Legend of the Guardians is astonishingly tangible and stunning to behold.