A brief video history of owls in science fiction and fantasy

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The new movie Legend of the Guardians presents owls as heroic warriors fighting rival owl eugenicists. (Really.) But the owls of Ga'Hoole are just the latest in a proud tradition of fantastical owls that are alternately wise, creepy, mysterious...and awesome.


Maybe it's because my first major knowledge of owls came from Winnie the Pooh's (allegedly) intellectual friend of the same name, but I never realized owls were supposed to be creepy. And yet owls have twin reputations for being wise and scary, and both of those go back at least to the time of Greek and Roman mythology. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, kept an owl as her symbolic bird, and owls were the inspiration for the strix, a blood-drinking bird of ill omen in Roman folklore that may have been the original vampire.

But that's just the tip of a very large, owl-shaped iceberg, and we've got plenty of fictional owls to discuss. And yes, we're cheating a little bit by including fantasy because, well, it's owls. There's only so many hard science fiction stories that prominently feature the things. So, without further ado...

1. Bubo, Clash of the Titans

Of all Ray Harryhausen's embellishments to the Perseus legend, the mechanical owl Bubo is definitely the most fondly remembered. Technically speaking, there are two Bubos in the movie: Athena's actual pet owl, and the mechanical duplicate Hephaestus builds to assist Perseus. Here you can see the mechanical Bubo's construction, though be sure to check out this clip where it really looks like the little guy is going to take on the Kraken all by himself:

Bubo also has a brief cameo in the 2010 remake, although Sam Worthington's Perseus is quickly told to leave him behind. That might as well be considered code for leaving all the whimsical charm and handmade craft of the original movie behind as well, but what the hey:

2. Archimedes, The Sword in the Stone

Merlin's pet owl is one of the relatively few talking animals in this particular Disney movie, but he makes up for it by talking at pretty much any opportunity. As Merlin himself observes, he's a fussy, vain little creature, but he's also brave when it counts, as when he takes on a giant fish to save the magically transformed young Arthur:

3. Nite Owl, Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Speaking of Archimedes, the Watchmen superhero Nite Owl calls his huge owl-shaped aircraft Archie after Merlin's owl. (I'm going to go ahead and assume Nite Owl got that from T.H. White's original novel The Once and Future King and not the Disney movie.) Of course, the deeper into second Nite Owl Dan Dreiberg's psyche you go, the more it seems he's not so much a superhero as an owl enthusiast who used to work out. His article "Blood from the Shoulder of Pallas", all about the study of owls, is attached to chapter seven, and it's so researched and scholarly that it's probably the toughest thing to read in the entire book. Not that it isn't excellent and important to the overall structure, but Moore definitely shows here his willingness to sacrifice entertainment in the name of authenticity, something he elevated into a sort of perverse art in The Black Dossier. But I digress - here's Nite Owl kicking some ass in the Zack Snyder adaptation:

4. Owlman, DC Comics

With all due respect to Daredevil villain the Owl, the definitive owl-themed bad guy in comics really has to be Owlman, Batman's evil counterpart in the alternate universe known as Earth-3. A member of the Crime Syndicate - which is even more impressive than Batman's membership in the Justice League, considering Owlman somehow keeps the superpowered psychopath Ultraman from vaporizing him armed with nothing but his wits (and some very mild mental powers) - Owlman is one of Earth-3's ruling crime lords. He's shown up in many different incarnations throughout comics history (alternate universe characters tend to get rebooted a lot in DC Comics) and he's shown up on Batman: The Brave & The Bold, but his most iconic moment really must have been in the recent DC DVD movie Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, where the great James Woods brings him to life as the ultimate nihilist:

5. The Owl, Cool McCool

Fine, one more Owl-themed supervillain. This one comes from the largely forgotten sixties animated spy spoof Cool McCool, which is mostly notable for being created by one Bob Kane. That would be Batman creator Bob Kane, and it has to be said Cool McCool's rogue's gallery is almost on par with Batman's, at least in terms of sheer weirdness: along with the Owl, there's the Rattler, Hurricane Harry, Greta Ghoul, Jack-In-The-Box, and Dr. Madcap. As you can see in the show's opening credits, the Owl is actually one of the least ridiculous, most menacing adversaries for McCool, though that's not really saying much:

6. The Grand Duke, Rock-A-Doodle

Legendary animator Don Bluth is generally considered a genius, but his 1991 film Rock-A-Doodle isn't often advanced as evidence to support this. Part Chaucer adaptation, part Elvis Presley homage, the film is about a boastful rooster named Chanticleer who discovers his crowing doesn't actually make the Sun rise, which causes him to leave town and seek his fortune as a singer in the big city. As it turns out, he really does make the Sun come up, which leaves his friends at the mercy of the Grand Duke, a malevolent owl wizard who is pretty much all-powerful as long as it's nighttime. After that, things start to get a little weird, but Christopher Plummer does voice the Grand Duke, for what that's worth:

7. The Great Owl, The Secrets of NIMH

OK, now this is why Don Bluth is a genius. His 1982 adaptation of Robert C. O'Brien's Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH takes the wise owl of the original book and ramps his presence up to almost unbearably unsettling heights, making him more elemental force than woodland creature. As in Rock-A-Doodle, Bluth knew how to cast his owls, getting the great John Carradine to voice the part. Of course, considering some of the other movies in Carradine's filmography, he probably wasn't particularly hard to get:

8. Hedwig, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

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Owls are all over the wizard world of Harry Potter. They're the finest messengers in the world, able to deliver messages and packages to anyone in the world, even if the sender doesn't know their location. (Although, if you take package delivery out of the equation, it's never really explained why this is actually any better than just sending an email. But still, I'm probably just being terribly muggle-centric again, as is my wont.) Precisely how owls pull off this remarkable trick is never fully explained, nor how Harry and Hedwig seem to share a Han and Chewie level of mutual understanding. Now let's head back to the franchises adorable beginning to see how much cooler mail call is at Hogwarts:

9. Jareth the Goblin King, Labyrinth

Jim Henson's 1986 classic stars an impossibly young Jennifer Connelly as Sarah Williams, a teenager who foolishly wishes goblins would take her annoying baby brother away from her. Although most of the goblins are suitably repulsive, their king Jareth looks like David Bowie in human form and can also transform into a beautiful white barn owl, which seems like a brutally unfair distribution of looks. Jareth's owl form is the star of the opening credits, but he makes his big reappearance when Sarah makes her regrettable wish:

10. The Fourth Kind

This recent alien horror movie is set in Nome, Alaska, where townspeople are disappearing after being haunted in the night by a strange white owl. That owl, of course, turns out to be an alien, and all the disappearances are actually alien abductions. The movie claims in the trailer to be inspired by true events and backed up by archival evidence - star Milla Jovovich actually appears out of character to warn people how disturbing this all is - but that's mostly (if not all) a big pile of crap. Still, the movie does have something of a basis in real alien lore, although probably not in the way the filmmakers wanted. Several supposed alien encounters have actually been explained as just being mistaken sightings of owls:

11. Wan Shi Tong, Avatar the Last Airbender

Perhaps the most knowledgeable creature in all the world, Wan Shi Tong is a spirit who has put together the finest repository of books and information in all the world, his library. He is wary of humans, who he believes only want to use the knowledge in his library to defeat their enemies in battle...which turns out to be more or less true. His natural form is that of a gigantic owl, and his library features many beautiful owl carvings, but when enraged he turns into something far more frightening than a mere owl. (Not quite as scary as an Owlbear, true, but still pretty terrifying.)

12. Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole

Cyriaque already covered this film in admirable depth in his review, so I have very little to add, other than point you towards the report that Zack Snyder created his own special brand of owl martial arts for the movie, using stuntmen dressed as owls to come up with the moves. But really, the trailer speaks for itself. These owls have come to lick Tootsie pops and kick ass, and they're all out of Tootsie pops:

Update: Now with three bonus entries! Thanks to Supachupacabra, MrGOH, and lightninglouie for pointing out my glaring omissions!


13. The Mechanical Owl, Blade Runner

Well, at least one work of hard science fiction prominently features owls, and I just forgot about it. Although the movie is coy about this - hell, Blade Runner is coy about pretty much everything - there are almost no real animals left on Earth, and in Philip K. Dick's original book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the owls were actually the first species to die off from the mysterious plague that wiped out all animals. The owl's eyes are also useful in establishing who is and isn't a replicant, as its eyes glow red at one point, a sign that it's a replicant. Now if only we could have seen Deckard give the Voight-Kampff test to the owl:

14. Futurama

As part of creators Matt Groening and David X. Cohen's world-building, they decided there would be no more rats in the future. To explain this, they said that huge populations of owls were imported to get rid of all the rats. Of course, all that did was make owls the new rats, which has created the lucrative profession of owl exterminator. Or, at least, evil henchmen pretending to be owl exterminators:

15. Twin Peaks

I'll be honest, I don't really have much to add on this one. I'm not sure anyone does. Suffice it to say, owls were important to David Lynch's vision...somehow:


Chris Braak

Oh, man. The Great Owl.

Man. Whoah.