In giving the ancient epic poem that is "Beowulf" the silver screen treatment, director Robert Zemeckis has opted to go the performance-capture route, the same unique, state-of-the-art form of animation used for his transcendent 2004 Christmas fantasy, "The Polar Express
." This format, wherein motion sensors are placed over the bodies of human actors, who are then transformed into computer-generated creations in post-production, is surely the wave of the future. Live-action films will always be around, certainly, but performance-capture animation has become so technologically advanced that the characters onscreen are barely a step away from being totally photorealistic. Furthermore, "Beowulf" is being released theatrically across the country in Real-D, a mesmerizing, top-of-the-line kind of 3-D that puts the cheesy old red-and-blue-lensed cardboard glasses to shame. Images explode off the screen with such boldness and clarity that this is really the only way to see the movie in theaters. It's quite an experience.
Because the picture's technical side is so extraordinary, it is truly saddening to have to write that "Beowulf" isn't a very good movie. Take away the visuals, and what is left is a subdued, lifeless affair that doesn't fully take off until the thrilling battle scene between human and fire-breathing dragon during the final ten minutes. Before this point, the film wastes far too much time closed up in dank interior settings that are far from ideal for an animated feature. The use of performance-capture practically demands light and color and scope, and "Beowulf" is in need of these things for roughly seventy-five percent of its running time. When daytime exteriors sporadically make an appearance, the film's energy level, showy eye-candy, and storytelling breadth skyrocket. Some of the camera movements in these sequences are awesome to behold, as are the snowy mountainous landscapes. Alas, they does not occur nearly enough.
In adapting the classic Old English poem, screenwriters Neil Gaiman (2007's "Stardust
") and Roger Avary (2006's "Silent Hill
") have retained the basic story outline while expanding upon, and in a few cases creating from scratch, characters, conflicts and relationships. The story begins in Denmark in 507 A.D., as the town of Heorot, lorded over by King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), is besieged by freakish monstrosity Grendel (Crispin Glover). In need of a master warrior to rid the town of this destructive, murderous creature, Hrothgar seeks the help of Beowulf (Ray Winstone). Once Grendel has been defeated, Beowulf journeys into his cavernous home to kill Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie). Her seductive ways are Beowulf's weakness, and soon he has made a deal with the devil that awards him the King's throne and wife Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn) at the price of years of treacherous deception. It is only a matter of time before the choices he has made come back to haunt him.
The tale of "Beowulf" undeniably came first, but one cannot watch this film version without thinking of Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings
" trilogy. As supremely fine as the animation is, it does not positively serve the story being told, and might have been more involving as live-action. Though the characters frequently look close to authentic, they still are just animated beings, and this causes an uncomfortable and disconnected mash-up with the violent adult-oriented plot.
Additionally, the overwhelming talkiness of the script crashes things to a halt time and again, gravely ruining the momentum. The dialogue is tongue-in-cheek, filled with double entendres, or is just plain stilted. Lest anyone forget who he is, Beowulf raises his arms and exclaims, "I am Beowulf!" so many times that it becomes laughable. Whenever the viewer expects the action to finally take over and the tension to heighten, director Robert Zemeckis tosses in another dreary gabfest of a scene or a montage of images that serve the sole purpose of ogling Beowulf's naked body and rippled abs. To the film's credit, an animated character has never been so sexy onscreen as Beowulf and Angelina Jolie's take on Grendel's mother are. When their attractiveness becomes the overriding point, though, it must be questioned whether or not Zemeckis' priorities were straight when he was shooting it.
Without giving away the particulars of the plot, when the timeline switches forward a few decades to capture Beowulf as a weathered older man whose cocky youthfulness has been replaced by escalating knowledge of his flaws as a person, the movie increases in interest and begins to strike an emotional chord that has been absent from the previous ninety minutes. Unfortunately, it is also the third and final act, arriving too late in the game to correct the mistakes that have been made. "Beowulf" is stylishly on solid ground, but as a narrative, the pace is as rickety as a drawbridge in flames. Sure, the film looks splendid, but all the fancy bells and whistles in the world cannot mask the storytelling inadequacies in evidence and decided emptiness you are left with inside.