What can we expect from a fully-computer-animated movie without Pixar in the credits or a green ogre in the lead? With Beowulf, hit director Robert Zemekis improves upon the motion-capture techniques used in his Polar Express to bring an ancient, legendary monster-slayer to vivid, digital life. Seeing it in IMAX 3-D, I was subjected to the height of today’s cinematic technology. From seeing the previews, I was prepared for incredibly life-like versions of Angelina Jolie as the monster Grendel’s sexy demoness mother, and the idealized, statuesque physique of Beowulf himself, but what really amazed me was the 3-D effects and how immersive it felt. More than just the flying arrows and sword points that make you want to reach out your hand, the large halls and mountain caverns really felt deep and spacious. With all this in-your-face technology, the real question is whether or not a substantial movie also exists underneath.
For starters, Beowulf is darker than your average hero legend. The hero doesn’t just go on a quest to rid the land of an evil monster, there are some deeper, more grown-up themes involved. As you may have guessed if you saw the essentially naked Jolie rising from the water, this retelling does not hold back on the sexual element at the heart of the tale. King Hrothgar (played by Anthony Hopkins) is afflicted with a curse/monster because of sex, and Beowulf falls to the same baser desires. Add to that some rather gory scenes of soldiers being ripped apart by Grendel, and you have an animated film that’s definitely not for the kiddies.
Neil Gaiman (acclaimed fantasy/horror author) and Tarantino-collaborator Roger Avary co-created the screenplay, which adds a love quadrangle element to the basic legend. Thankfully the computer animation has reached the level where it can successfully match the vocal performances of the actors (including Hopkins, Jolie, Robin Wright Penn, John Malkovich, Brendan Gleeson, Alison Lohman, and Ray Winstone as Beowulf) with realistic facial expressions. At first I may have felt like I was watching a video game being played, but after a while the characters seemed more human. The physical resemblances were pretty good as well. Though Hopkins’s character was made older and fatter than the real person, and Malkovich’s more wan and snivelly, others were obviously embellished. (Compared to Winstone’s somewhat less-trim physique, Beowulf looked like he’d been training with the Spartans from 300.)
The other benefit of computer effects for an epic story like this is the incredible action set-pieces. In the battle with Grendel, the flashback of Beowulf slaying sea monsters, and the final showdown with a golden dragon, not only was the virtual camera-work kinetic and exciting, computer animation was able to produce fantastic effects with amazing realism (it’s why video games like this are so fun). While we’re definitely not at the stage where you can completely forget that you’re seeing computer-generated imagery, when paired with larger-than-life characters such as Beowulf it lends the movie a kind of otherworldliness that seems appropriate. (4.5 out or 5)
What if I made Beowulf?
I would have scrapped the final scene of the movie. You’ll know when you see it, that it seems really pointless and weird. It would have been so much better to have ended it on a heroic note. I know a lot of stories like to end with “… the story never really ends” kind of implications, but I really didn’t like that here.
Also, there were a few scenes where something pointing in from off-screen was meant to capture a first-person perspective (most notably Grendel’s mother extending a tentacle towards Beowulf). This was an OK effect, but to me it just screamed “video game” and took me out of the movie. Finally, I don’t know if it’s a limit of the technology, but I think they should have worked on improving the characters’ eyes. There was something a bit glassy about them that never quite seemed life-like.