(Note: This review is of the 3-D IMAX version of “Beowulf,” which is not showing at all theaters. Check your local listings for details.)
It is oddly appropriate that the oldest surviving epic poem in the English language is the inspiration for the absolute newest in motion picture technology. Director Robert Zemeckis has chosen to tell the centuries-old tale of Beowulf, the original larger-than-life Anglo-Saxon hero, by using equally larger-than-life cinematic technique.
Motion capture filmmaking has taken the performances of Angelina Jolie (Grendel’s mother), Anthony Hopkins (King Hrothgar), John Malkovich (Unferth), and Ray Winstone (Beowulf), and digitized them all—placing them in a state-of-the-art 3-D version of 500 A.D. Europe. Zemeckis’ “Beowulf” is a grand spectacle with more than a little William Castle influence. Unlike the late showman’s gimmicky theatrics, however, “Beowulf” actually delivers the goods when it comes to the actual movie—mostly.
The broad themes of the story fit the CGI-created characters and oversized voice performances. Three years have passed now since Zemeckis used this technology in “The Polar Express,” and in that short time the animation has matured by leaps and bounds. Utilizing 3-D imaging on top of motion capture makes the whole theatrical experience even more otherworldly. Everything in the frame (both foreground and background) is rich with color and has so much detail that the 3-D absolutely immerses you. It is enough to make you forget you’re watching an animated movie—that is, until the faces start to move.
As amazing as the look of the film is, computers still can’t replicate the movements of the human face. The rubbery skin, especially noticeable on the women characters, doesn’t quite snap back. It has more in common with Play-Doh than flesh. Perhaps because men’s faces are hairier it isn’t as noticeable, but some characters look like they’ve had too much plastic surgery and they can’t quite muster a convincing smile. That being said, the voice acting helps bring characters to life when their facial expressions cannot. But look on the bright side— there is less of a schism between the humans and CGI monsters when everybody is a special effect.
Besides maximizing the functionality of the animation in the art direction department, Zemeckis puts the 3-D aspect to stellar use in several swirling fight scenes. Swooping shots follow Beowulf as he dives into action, while other times the point-of-view becomes unhinged and melds with the audience’s perspective, enhancing the excitement. All the while, the movie keeps a consistent depth of field to wow the senses. Even though the effect is dulled slightly by the end of the two-hour running time, the 3-D is put to such fantastic use that cannot imagine watching movie without it. A 2-D version would probably more akin to watching a very expensive videogame.
However, the story itself suffers for having been a template for so many works that have been filmed prior. It is strange watching a movie version of the poem that inspired “The Lord of the Rings” (J.R.R. Tolkien was a scholar of the epic narrative) after that successful trilogy and so many warrior movies before it (“Braveheart,” “Gladiator”) have borrowed from “Beowulf” so liberally. Grendel, for example, is a tragic figure, but part of his freshness as a character is gone because it is impossible to forget about the obvious similarities to Gollum. Even Beowulf’s boastful cry “I am Beowulf!” now seems like a nod to “We are Sparta!” from “300.” “Beowulf” is fighting the same uphill battle “Troy” had to fight three years ago when it adapted Homer’s “The Illiad.”
To compensate, screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary have taken some liberties with the original text. Hubris and a constant quest for glory is as old as “The Illiad” itself, but they are accentuated here in Beowulf. They have also put a more modern spin on story, playing up the adventurer’s inner conflict. His excessive pride makes him more of a blowhard and his great conquering tales seem to change every time he tells them. This is one human frailty Beowulf possesses (unlike the boring Spartans of “300”) that brings him down from the exalted hero status he has held since the character’s inception.
The screenplay points a finger at Beowulf’s lust for women and the price one must pay for hurting others. It has a circular structure revolving around temptation and the folly of man. Avary and Gaiman also tackle the corrupting influence of power; something the epic story has never been too concerned about. There are even solemn references to Jesus that signal the end of a way of life. More than one Nordic soldier mocks the “Christ-God” for doing away with glory and ushering a in a new era of martyrdom.
These changes, plus a ribald sense of humor and healthy dose of unrestrained sexual innuendo (Beowulf’s sword actually melts in his hand when faced with Jolie’s demon temptress), do serve the story well. But it is impossible to shake the fact that other movies have beat “Beowulf” to the theater with so many similar themes. The new technology, however, has that “wow” factor that the story is missing. Although not perfect by any means, the visually stunning 3-D and rich animation help make “Beowulf” an unforgettable theater-going experience.