Babies, I think I’ve never been shy about my luv for all things animated. No cartoon snob am I. I think western audiences rarely give the animated film much shrift outside of being a convenient babysitter. Look eastward and you’ll see the medium not only taken seriously, but used to tell stories of legend that even the Asian love of special effects and wirework could bring to the screen (-all hail Hayao Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon!). So it’s a canny director who is wise enough to latch onto the use of animation as a filmmaking tool, giving one the ability to tell tales that might not be convincingly told with even the costliest live action of special effects. Never one to shy away from innovation, director Robert Zemeckis, whose previous milestones include Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her and Forrest Gump (- and the deeply underrated I Wanna Hold Your Hand), now brings us Beowulf, ye olde epic poem of extreme Scandinavian heroism. With screenplay by the brilliant Neil Gaiman (- creator of his own epic poem called The Sandman), and Pulp Fiction’s Roger Avary, Zemeckis chose the performance capture technology last used in his children’s fable, The Polar Express, to realise Beowulf’s tale of dangerous sea voyages, snowbound remote Alpine kingdoms, man-eating monsters, dragon slaying and Angelina Jolie.
Having attempted to burrow through a Penguin copy of Beowulf years ago, I was very pleased that Gaiman and Avary have made a cohesive and palatable narrative out one of the most unpleasant and frustrating reading experiences of my life. Many things have been altered in their screenplay and that’s just ducky; relationships that aren’t mentioned in the poem are devised, battles we have not heard associated to Beowulf are shown. We meet Beowulf coming to the aid of the cursed and monster-plagued Danish king, Hrothgar, and he immediately beguiles the kingdom with tales of impossible victories over all manner of mythological beast. Beowulf is certainly a huge, strapping physical specimen and a cunning warrior, as evinced in his battles with the deformed giant called Grendel, and later against a golden dragon with a grudge; but when Beowulf is lured by temptation and ambition, he succumbs, becoming a liar and a fraud to all those who trust him. For all its blinding action, Gaiman and Avary’s Beowulf is as much about the redemption of honour and the recovery of a man’s soul once he’s sold it. Too bad the end product is too mired in its own spectacle for the audience to appreciate the moral.
Besides the photo-capture technology, Beowulf is also filmed in 3-D. It is used to great effect during Grendel’s attack on the Hrothgar’s hall as the 3-D puts you right in the middle of it. The violence in that scene – though magically CGI gore-free – pushes the PG-13 limits and is truly frightening. The climactic battle with the dragon is a real showstopper, far and away the best thing about the entire film. (- Except for the Austin Power tribute when Beowulf decides to fight an opponent au naturel and every possible glimpse of his man ensemble is covered by a soldier’s helmet, a corner of a shield, a random elbow… I still don’t know if it was meant to be funny, but I felt like a great moment for 3-D was lost with all the subterfuge) While a neat gimmick in short intervals (- see Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix), lasting the entire nearly two hours of film time, the 3-D gave me a headache. I don’t know that I needed to have my glasses on for the whole thing. (- Was the scullery maid’s pervy homage to the car washing scene in Cool Hand Luke specifically there because it was in 3-D?).
Beowulf bears a lot of resemblance to 300 in its heroic theme and also inhabits a world overwhelmingly and unironically testosterone-driven. Beowulf’s closest relationship is with his second-in-command, Wiglaf, despite the younger Beowulf and the Danish queen making computer-generated cow’s eyes at each other every spare moment. The pacing of Beowulf is terribly uneven, the anticipation for non-stop action worked against the film in any moment where there wasn’t any and the stilted attempts at character development are rote and embarrassing, but then again no one was coming to the party to see the characters talk (- or have a personality, sense of humour, etc…).
One of the things the punters are definitely coming for is the CGI version of an overheated Angelina Jolie as the monster Grendel’s horny demon mother. Slowly rising out the waters of a cave, molten gold literally pouring over her bits and pieces with each thrusting step toward Beowulf, this is no subtle charmer. Jolie only has the one big scene with a couple of quick moments afterward, and for the majority of those scenes she’s not in her human temptress form, but when she is… I wondered if Zemeckis hadn’t had another of his characters in mind as Grendel’s mom resembles none so much as Jessica Rabbit with her kit off. Seeing Mme. Jolie’s CGI counterpart, all I could think was, ‘this is SO for the fan boys’. None of her animators seemed to be bothered that her head doesn’t quite fit her body – her neck is about a ¼ inch long – and being no scholar of ancient Scandinavia, it’s refreshing to learn that 5-inch stiletto heels were all the rage then.
I have a lot of problems with the photo-capture technology. I still think it’s creepy-looking, as I did with Polar Express, though Beowulf is surely an improvement on the science. Endeavouring for lifelike realness, the CGI characters still have a flat deadness to the eyes, a waxy, plastic quality to certain skin tones (- the young queen goes through the first half of the film looking like a dewy-eyed Madame Alexander doll). In Beowulf, it’s jarring that you have the CGI characters made in some cases to look like their real life counterparts; Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, and somehow even Crispin Glover as the misshapen monster Grendel come off best. Yet Zemeckis chose for other characters to not look like the actors at all and it’s an unnecessary confusion. Warning, tangent ahead: Kids, there’s a low budget gem of a movie starring a very young Diane Lane and Laura Dern called Ladies & Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, about an all-girl punk band trying to make it big. The male lead is a youthfull Ray Winstone working a pompadour as a Joe Strummer-esque singer of a rival band. My esteem for the awesomeness of Winstone goes back that far, but I still cannot fathom why he was cast as Beowulf when his avatar so clearly resembles fellow British actor Sean Bean? Despite Beowulf’s occasional slips into an East End barrow-boy accent, Winstone’s remarkable voice is apparently what Zemeckis heard for his hero, but then why the striking resemblance to another actor? Brendan Gleeson voices Wiglaf, Beowulf’s second-in-command and this character looked so much like Gimli, the dwarf from the Lord of the Rings series (- again, a Sean Bean connection), I wondered if it was some inside joke. I could only tell around the (Mad-) eyes that it was Gleeson at all. These disparities in character designs were just plain odd and made the film feel even more disjointed.
With other films, I have no problem saying, check your brain at the door, stick your face in a tub of popcorn and enjoy, as is my overall impression of Beowulf. I have to admit to being a little disappointed having to say that about any film that employs a screenplay co-written by the fabulous Neil Gaiman. While I enjoyed the innovation of Robert Zemeckis using animation to embody this story of heroes and monsters and I loved the action (- it’s got a big gold dragon!); I only wished those scenes that didn’t involve Playstation-perfect feats of derring-do weren’t as hollow and soulless as the eyes of Beowulf’s characters.