Robert Zemeckis has become a wildcard in the Cinema world. When Zemeckis rose to fame in the mid 80s with films like Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit he seemed a little bit like a Steven Spielberg imitator, albeit a very successful one. During the 90s he began to feel like an Oscar chaser with films like Forrest Gump and Cast Away. Then, in a completely unexpected twist, he began to make motion-capture based computer animation films. His films The Polar Express and Monster House were both met with mixed reviews by critics unsure how to react to this medium which some felt took a walk though the uncanny valley. While The Polar Express was aimed at a very young audience and Monster House was aimed at slightly older children, Zemeckis’ new animated film, Beowulf is aimed at a teenage through adult audience, an almost unheard of demographic for a mainstream animated film.
Based on the 8th century epic poem of the same name, the film revolves around the title character, Beowulf (voiced by Ray Winstone). Beowulf has ventured to a mead hall called Heorot, which has recently been attacked by a large humanoid monster called Grendel (Crispin Glover). King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) has ordered an end to all “merry-making” in Heorot because it incurs the wrath of this monster because of his sensitive hearing. Beowulf, his right hand man Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson), and his small squad of warriors face Grendel, but must ultimately face is mother (Angelina Jolie), a seductress water demon.
Beowulf is an epic poem I never had the “privilege” of reading. Throughout my education I took Woody Allen’s advice not to “take any course where they make you read Beowulf.” The main reason I’ve avoided reading the book is simply that I’ve had bad experiences trying to read archaic epic poetry; it’s a style of writing that I find to simply be annoying to read. Despite this reluctance to read the text, I’ve always been curious about the story of the poem. Every description I’ve heard basically makes it sound like a series of fights against three different monsters. This is not the kind of story that fits the usual mould of Hollywood films, thus a creative adaptation was essential to the success or failure of the film.
As I’ve never read the original text, I can’t testify as to its accuracy, I can say that I suspect the movie has been heavily modified. The nature of this modification by screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery, however seems very clever. Instead of a straight up adaptation of the events of the poem, the film appears to claim to be the “true story” behind the poem. The writing of “the song of Beowulf” is referenced in the film, but the events in the song are based on the hero’s propaganda rather than the true story of his deeds. In fact the Beowulf in the film is very different from the one-dimensional hero from the poem. This Beowulf is a brash and arrogant fighter who becomes haunted in his old age by a selfish lie he told in his youth. “The song of Beowulf is in fact the result of the young Beowulf’s bragging as opposed to an “accurate” portrayal. This dichotomy of heroic truth as told through propaganda is not unlike a similar technique used in the film 300 earlier this year.
Though the tricks used to adapt the film are interesting, this is not a script without its share of problems. The film wants to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to this propaganda angle. The film wants to make Beowulf into a bragging jerk, yet he is an extremely adept warrior in the film despite his exaggerations. The film never firmly decides whether or not Beowulf lives up to his hype or not, and this undermines the film’s theme.
Most of the characters except for Beowulf himself and the Grendel family are two dimensional figures, especially the female characters. Queen Wealtheow (Robin Wright Penn) and Beowulf’s mistress Ursula (Alison Lohman) are both superficial figures that serve almost no purpose other than to act as damsels in distress during the film’s finale.
The film’s dialogue is enjoyable, but not overly noteworthy. Those hoping for the poetic text of the original poem will be disappointed, although they will find it more interesting than what can be heard from the mouths of average Hollywood characters. As far as faux-Shakespearian dialogue goes, I’d say this ranks somewhere between Braveheart (bad) and Gladiator (good). This is of course set in Viking-era Scandinavia, and as such the dialogue appropriately comes from a more blue-collar place than something set in upper class Elizabethan England. Especially enjoyable are the bawdy mead-hall drinking songs sung by the drunken soldiers.
The enjoyable elements from Beowulf ultimately come from its execution rather than its story. The entire film consists of computer generated images based on motion capture from real people. 3D prints of the film are being distributed into 638 conventional theaters and 104 IMAX screens. I however, caught the film on a conventional 2D movie screen. I would have liked to see the film in its intended 3D, but every theater showing it like this were in distant suburbs of my city, and thus were inconvenient to get to. Add to this increased admission price of an IMAX screening and it was clear that a 2D screening would be far more convenient for me. Additionally, I believe watching the film this way allowed me to more clearly focus on the film’s story than the spectacle. During an early scene a horseman runs up to the camera with a spear pointing directly forward. This appeared to be a blatant visual intended to be impressive in 3D. Fortunately the rest of the film seemed to avoid these sorts of three dimensional stunts. Throughout the film tends to use conventional “camera angle” and editing in its animation.
Of greater interest than the film’s special distribution are the film’s motion capture graphics. Going into the film I had hoped I would be the first film to really feel photo-realistic. Unfortunately the animation technology has not quite reached that level, but it is getting more and more impressive. The animations progress however is evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
Many people have claimed that motion capture animation of this sort has fallen into what’s called the “uncanny valley.” That when animation tries to replicate humans with this level of realism, people will invariably start to focus on what looks unreal about the characters rather than what does look real. As such, the characters in Zemeckis’ last two motion capture films were heavily criticized for having lifeless eyes and less than perfect facial motions. I however do not buy into the theory of the “uncanny valley.” If one goes into the film demanding photorealism, they will be disappointed. I however was willing to accept the animation for what it was rather than what it wasn’t. After I got used to the film’s animation I was able to get past its shortcomings I was able to go with the film’s style.
The film is, if nothing else, a very good action movie. The film features four major action scenes. The best of these is probably a dazzling one on one aerial fight between Beowulf and a humongous winged dragon. Also solid are the two absolutely brutal mead-hall fights against Grendel. Grendel, a frightening hulk of a monster, fights with his bare hands and absolutely annihilates all the people that stand in his way. Also worth noting is an over the top flashback to a fight between Beowulf and three large sea serpents which ends with Beowulf getting some action from a topless mermaid.
It is worth noting that the film has been significantly edited in order to receive a PG-13 rating. The film does not live up to the gory promise of its red-band trailer. The bloody slaughter of the Grendel fights have been darkened significantly, the blood is a shade of black rather than bright red. Also edited has been a significant amount of nudity. Angelina Jolie, who appears nude, has been covered by Goldfinger style paint and the aforementioned topless mermaid is inexplicably has no nipples. Also a casualty of censorship is a bizarre scene where Beowulf fights Grendel… naked. Throughout the scene Beowulf’s naughty parts are covered by various conveniently placed objects Austin Powers style. Beowulf’s reasons for going into this fight nude were important, it showed his youthful recklessness, but this censorship turns this into a bad physical comedy scene. I’m not saying I have any particular desire to see Beowulf’s penis, but if they were going to have a scene like this they should have either gone all out or just given Beowulf some pants.
Also interesting is the acting in the movie, especially that of Ray Winstone. I’d be lying if I said that I fully understood how much of the characters physical movement could be attributed to the actors behind the graphics, but I do know that the voice acting here is first rate. Ray Winstone’s voice is a perfect choice for the role of Beowulf, his voice has the perfect mix of strength and masculinity. Anthony Hopkins is a great addition to the film, and John Malkovich also has a nice hammy role. Angelina Jolie is also a great choice, her voice is perfect for seduction. The less famous cast members are also top of the line voice talents. The voice of Crispin Glover however, is somewhat wasted on a raging monster. Grendel only speaks occasionally and when he does it sounds more like garbled gibberish than talented acting, this is of course the way the character perhaps should be portrayed, but if you’re looking for a recognizable Glover you may be disappointed.
In the end, Beowulf is a very cool movie. “Cool” is probably the word I’m most comfortable using to describe the film. It’s not excellent, or even great. If you’re looking for a faithful adaptation of the poem, or for photorealistic animation, you’ll probably be disappointed. However, if what you’re looking for is a badass action adventure you’ll definitely be satisfied.
***1/2 out of four