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Beowulf

The Future of Filmmaking? Not Quite.

"Beowulf", the Anglo-Saxon epic poem long the bane of high school students studying English Literature, so fascinated Neil Gaiman (Stardust, Sandman) and Roger Avary (Killing Zoe, Pulp Fiction) that they adapted the poem into a screenplay. Ten years and several false starts later, Beowulf finally hits the big screen as a computer animated epic directed by Robert Zemeckis (The Polar Express, What Lies Beneath, Forrest Gump). Best seen in 3D, Beowulf is too long, over earnest, self-consciously serious, flawed, but nonetheless compelling, if mostly due to the cutting-edge computer animation that fills every frame.

A once proud warrior-turned-king, the elderly Hrothgar (voiced by Anthony Hopkins) lives out his remaining days as the hedonistic host of a never-ending bacchanal. His much younger queen, Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn), disapproves of Hrothgar's behavior, but is powerless to do anything. Hrothgar's chief counselor, Unferth (John Malkovich), hopes to become king once the childless Hrothgar passes from this world into the next. To celebrate their good fortune, Hrothgar opens a new mead hall. The sounds of celebration, however, carried by the wind, reach the ears of Grendel (Crispin Glover), a giant, deformed, demonic creature. Grendel attacks the mead hall, leaving devastation in his wake.

Defeated, Hrothgar seeks help from the outside world. Already a legend, Beowulf (Ray Winstone) arrives in Hrothgar's kingdom with a small band of men, including his closest friend and confidante, Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson). Bold, impetuous, self-confident to the point of arrogance, Beowulf trusts his instincts to see him through a confrontation with Grendel. Goaded into action by Unferth, Beowulf goads Grendel into attacking by spending a boisterous night in the reopened mead hall. On cue, Grendel attacks, but Beowulf survives, he soon learns that Hrothgar never bothered to mention another, even more dangerous foe than Grendel, Grendel’s Mother (Angelina Jolie).

Given the source material, an epic poem more than one thousand years old, it’s not surprising that Gaiman and Avary took a few liberties in adapting Beowulf for a mainstream feature-length film. They expanded character motivations through dialogue and action, but they also “filled in” key character relationships that don’t appear in the source material. More importantly, Gaiman and Avary made Beowulf a flawed hero, a bold, stubborn, prideful, lustful, egotist prone to the convenient exaggeration. It’s Beowulf’s tragic flaws that determine the choices he makes and the consequences he’s forced to ultimately face. The occasionally clunky or laugh-inducing dialogue may not be Shakespearean (far from it, actually), but Gaiman and Avary deserve credit for adding complexity to both Beowulf as a character and Beowulf the film.

Early on in his career as a director, less than flattering comparisons were drawn between Zemeckis and longtime friend and mentor Steven Spielberg (Zemeckis was referred to as “Spielberg-lite”). While Spielberg has mixed personal projects with commercial ones, Zemeckis’ most recent projects seem to indicate he’s adopted George Lucas' obsession with innovation for innovation’s sake, regardless of the needs of a particular story. Zemeckis used motion-capture technology for the first time in The Polar Express with mixed results. The characters were insufficient expressive and moved awkwardly. Even worse, the characters' eyes seemed devoid of life (because they were).

The computer animation in Beowulf is a definite improvement over what we saw in The Polar Express. The characters are more expressive, their movements less clumsy, the backgrounds more textured and detailed, and the camera moves more impressive. Unfortunately, the better-rendered characters still look like waxwork figures, almost human, but not quite. Zemeckis doesn’t help himself either by having Hrothgar, Unferth, and Grendel’s Mother look almost exactly like their real world counterparts (Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Angelina Jolie, respectively). At best, it undermines the purpose behind computer animation. At worst, it proves to be an unnecessary distraction.

If, as Zemeckis would like us to believe, Beowulf represents the future of filmmaking, shouldn't the story to be as compelling as the technology harnessed to tell that story? It should, but it doesn’t apply to Beowulf and its long, exposition-filled scenes interrupted only occasionally by bouts of action featuring Beowulf battling monstrous antagonists. As for Zemeckis, his next project is an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, exploiting computer animation and motion capture technology again, not because there’s anything approaching a compelling reason to do so, but because he can.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars