But like Cameron, something happened to Zemeckis which caused him to forget his biggest gift. In Cameron's case, he made Titanic: in his search for epic romance he forsook what was left of Roger Corman's teachings, got rewarded for it, and then made Avatar. With Zemeckis, he embraced motion capture with open arms; the freedom to digitally reshape his actors eroded his ability to capture nuance or humanity, resulting in films which are technically adept but emotionally hollow. After The Polar Express, we now have Beowulf, a muddled and often misjudged take on the Old English legend, which has plenty by way of flesh and blood, but not enough meat on its bones.
First and foremost, there is nothing inherently wrong with motion capture. The Lord of the Rings and King Kong both demonstrated that it can be successfully integrated with live-action, and The Adventures of Tintin showed that making a film entirely within that medium (save for the title sequence) can be effective for certain stories. The problem with Beowulf is not the fact that it is in motion capture: the problem is that Zemeckis doesn't justify using the technology, either on this kind of scale or for this kind of story. As impressed as you might be by the effects, there's always a feeling that the story would be conveyed just as well with ordinary, fleshy human beings.
That said, there are a number of technical shortcomings with the film. The perspective on several shots is out of whack, with Grendel's arms and legs changing size at random until all sense of scale is lost. Some of Zemeckis' camera angles and shot choices are ineffective, with the long pull back from Hrothgar's village into Grendel's cave seeming superfluous. And there is the residual problem of 'dead-eye syndrome', in which the characters look so photo-realistic that we are repulsed by it. While they are slightly less eerie than their counterparts in The Polar Express, we are still hovering over or around uncanny valley, limiting our ability to emotionally connect with the characters.
The second major problem with Beowulf is that it doesn't do justice to the source material. The film has a handful of interesting ideas or themes (we'll come to those later), but none of them serve the ideas of the original story: some of them are so far removed that it borders on contempt. The film is written by Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman, the latter of whom has a great record in the fantasy genre, having written Stardust and Coraline. Either the screenplay was a huge misstep in amongst a rich vein of form, or Zemeckis was simply unable to interpret it in a satisfying, cinematic manner.
At this juncture you may make the point that being faithful to the source material isn't a guarantee of quality. You can point to my many Disney reviews, in which I praise the likes of Peter Pan despite the huge departures from their original sources. There is, however, a fundamental difference between creating 'the Disney version' of a story and the manner in which Zemeckis has approached Beowulf. Disney has always attempted to bring something new to every tale it has tackled: the changes usually represented a creative engagement with the story, even if that engagement resulted in failure. With Beowulf, Zemeckis has stripped the legend down to its bare bones and beyond, ignoring all the really interesting parts and only keeping what he can turn into a rollicking rollercoaster ride. If Disney is a benevolent, occasionally inspired dictator, Zemeckis is in this instance a ruthless asset-stripper.
The original poem was a celebration of tribal values, with emphasis being placed on kinship, loyalty and honour in the face of great evil. A number of scholars, including J. R. R. Tolkien, have noted it as a meeting point between pagan and Christian literary traditions; the first manuscripts imply that it is a Christianised retelling of Danish culture with strong hints of the Old Testament. But aside from a couple of patriotic speeches, Beowulf makes no attempt to approach or engage with either the themes of the story or its reputation.
What the film attempts instead is to use the story of Beowulf as a starting point for its own ideas about the fantasy genre. Some of its ideas attempt to rework the story, others are more abstract and unrelated to the source, in a manner which is both frustrating and tantalising. The main reworking concerns the relationship between Hrothgar, Beowulf and Grendel's mother,. The Biblical interpretation, which sees Grendel and his mother as the cursed offspring of Cain, is replaced by a Freudian one, in which the human protagonists are part of a cyclical Oedipal struggle rooted in the desire to control humanity.
The idea of human warriors making forbidden, sexual pacts with supernatural beings to ensure peace is in and of itself very interesting. On the one hand, it gives Grendel some form of motivation, making him the consequence of something rather than just another monster. He becomes very much a body horror character, like the strange creatures in David Cronenberg's The Brood or Andrzej Zulawski's Possession. On the other hand, this idea draws comparisons with Faust and H. P. Lovecraft; it characterises humans as being at the mercy of ancient demons, who either give them what they desire only to betray them, or who simply allow them to live in fear until the time is right to wreak destruction.
There is also a fleeting exploration of the process by which legends and reputations come about. When he first arrives at court, Beowulf is questioned by Unferth (John Malkovich with a silly accent) about the monsters he has killed. Beowulf spins a yarn about fighting sea monsters and swimming across oceans, with his men remarking sotto voce about him changing certain details. The film never goes into any great depth with this idea, but it's appropriate to raise it in some form, considering the contentious origins of Beowulf itself.
But for all the interesting implications present in these ideas, they are ultimately drowned out by the insistence on big, dumb spectacle. Even in the quieter scenes, Zemeckis is determined to keep things barrelling along, regularly cutting when it is unnecessary or composing his shots just so he can show off the technology. The film is obsessed with throwing stuff at the screen as opposed to building up character or mood, and eventually we just give up and let it all wash over us in total bemusement.
There are any number of moments in Beowulf which will make you scratch your head in disbelief. Beowulf himself looks the part, with the body of Adonis and a full head of hair - but the second that Ray Winstone speaks, the whole film jumps the shark and the only sane response is to snigger. Angelina Jolie plays the sexualised Grendel's mother as well as you'd expect - but that doesn't explain why a shape-shifting lizard should have feet resembling stiletto heels. And then there's Beowulf's fight scene with Grendel, featuring the former fighting in the nude. While naked combat may have existed in days of yore, the whole fight is structured like an Austin Powers gag, with numerous bawdy coverings for Beowulf's crotch.
This brings us on to the flesh-ripping violence in the film. Some of this was to be expected, since stories about warriors and dragons are not known for their restraint. But while we can forgive or overlook the bawdy elements, the violence itself is disturbingly full-on. The BBFC gave the film a 12 certificate, arguing that since the deaths were animated it constituted fantasy violence. But the realistic motion capture means that the animated gore is just as gross and graphic as it would be in a normal horror movie. Grendel is so grotesque and sinewy that he could have wandered out of Hellraiser, and the film lingers on the blood and detail more than enough to warrant a 15 instead.
Beowulf is a hugely disappointing miss from Zemeckis, reflecting his creative decline and epitomising Hollywood's trend towards empty spectacle over engrossing storytelling. It's not a total failure, with a number of interesting if irrelevant ideas and enough in-your-face action to please fans of mindless escapism. But ultimately its liberties with the story and technical shortcomings brings the whole thing down, reducing an intriguing and important legend into Shrek fighting Frank from Hellraiser, on a rollercoaster, minus his trousers.
Beowulf gets better with age as do most of the characters, yet they seem alittle 'He-manish', there voices are provided well from a good epic cast but it just doesn't quite fit the animated style. A main problem is your not sure if this is aimed at kids until the battles start, then you realise there's a very strong adult presence to the film, this gets more brutal and bloody as the film progresses and actually makes it alot better.
The film looks better during the day sequences and seems to improve as the story goes on, the dragon battle near the end is the high point and very good, excellent effects and the best looking sequence, its actually better than other dragon related live action films. The ending is alittle sad but also alittle cliched and rather similar to other films but still works nicely. Its hard to judge, it starts slow and ropey yet does get better, the dragon battle being very good but thats all really. Nice to see legends from a real fable of a different country which hasn't been explored too much.
Very entertaining with unbelievable 3D and animation.
I think the decision to go entirely with computer animation for this adapatation of Beowulf was a good one. Sure, a live-action movie with practical effects or a mixture of CGI could have been good, but I think the movie stood out more this way, than it would have, otherwise.
The animated models look remarkably like their voice actors (you can easily tell who they're based upon, if you didn't know beforehand), and some of the backgrounds and settings are still quite impressive, a few years later. But, that's not to say that the the visuals don't still fall prey to the usual problems that arise when you try to do realistic human animation. Some of the facial expressions look odd, the movement of the characters occasionally seems very jerky and artificial, and almost every pair of eyes looks souless and dead. As I said, those issues are certainly not unique to Beowulf, but they are here.
As for the rest of the movie it's a good action flick that has some humorous moments and enough blood and violence to make it appropriate for teenagers and up. The story really only covers a few events, and there's not much here other than the battles (which are certainly entertaining) and a few talky bits. Don't expect much more than that, and you'll be content. I actually think that Beowolf would have benefitted from being made with post-Avatar 3-D technology, but even in 2-D on your tv screen, it's a fun adult adventure.
I'm rambling, and probably don't make any sense, but I was entertained despite the film's flaws.
As the film moved on though it took life and Gaiman's writing overcame the shortcomings of what they were attempting with the computer enhanced brushstroke.
While I am sure that this looked amazing in 3-D on the big screen it really lost its luster even in HD on a decent 1080P LCD.
That being said, the story was told well. As old as time itself, an ancient text brought forth from my high school days was given new life and I found myself actually enjoying the ride.
There was some overdone, testosterone driven scenes, but they did not fall out of place.
The voice work was great with the likes of Malkovich and Hopkins and Jolie gave me goosebumps even behind the CGI shimmer.
So, again, this will not make it into the annals of any "best of film" book, but it was a good romp nonetheless.
See it when you can.
The other ancient epic movie of 2007, from fantastical adventure guru director Robert Zemeckis.
This is the old story, England's national epic, that involves the arrival of the fierce warrior Beowulf into a town being terrorized by a monster, Grendel. Upon slaying the beast, he must then deal with Grendel's mother, and then later save the town from a fierce dragon. That's a pretty easy set up for a three act Hollywood feature, wouldn't you say?
English character actor Ray Winstone stars as the fabled warrior Beowulf, and gives it his all in terms of vocal performance. Winstone is a 50 year old, slightly flabby man, so its a neat choice to see him play a 6'6" golden haired warrior. I mention this because the film uses motion capture technology to create a photo realistic film that is absolutely stunning for the majority of the film.
There is also a fairly large supporting cast that includes Brendan Gleeson as Beowulf's loyal right hand man. Anthony Hopkin's as the old, fat, and perpetually drunk King Hrothgar with a secret of his own. John Malkovich, miles better than he was in Eragorn, as Hrothgar's right hand man and skeptical counter point of Beowulf. Robin Wright Penn and Alison Lohman in the usually boring epic roles, that being the women in these men's lives. Crispin "George McFly" Glover as the hideously misunderstood monster that is Grendel. And Angelina Jolie as the devious and very underdressed mother of Grendel.
I'm glad I did not see this movie in 3D first, because it gave me a chance to see this movie for what it is in terms of story and themes. Watching Beowulf slowly recognize how his pride has affected everyone around him makes him a very intriguing character. He also has some primal brawler fighting tactics that will not be unnoticed by anyone.
King Hrothgar: She's not my curse, not anymore.
Then you have the rest of the story adapted by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery, which while doing some justice to the original text, changes a few things around (basically everything involving what takes place after defeating Grendel) to effect the roles of some of the characters. This creates some faults in the story, not to mention how familiar and flat some of the characters are, but nothing too drastic. Really, the screenplay makes the film feel like an over-the-top comedy, with plenty of epic adventure aspects to mask it.
These moments aside, this movie is stunning visually. Of course the characters are not supposed to be seen as real, animation does not need to do that, but the backgrounds, the action, the monsters, and the inventive and non-possible-if-done-live camera moves make this all so much fun. It is also fun to see the over-the-top whooshes of various objects into the screen, which will of course be more fun in 3D.
Zemeckis regular Alan Silvestri of course has a score that is fitting and appropriate throughout. There are a number of moments where it seems as if the soundtrack is matching Winstone's performance by practically yelling out Beowulf!
This whole movie is very entertaining and Zemeckis completely gets rid of the creepy factor that was "The Polar Express," to make another motion-capture movie that is appropriately well handled.
Note: On second viewing in IMAX 3D, the movie proves to maintain its epicness, possibly increasing it quality. There are a number of fun whooshes into the camera, but overall, its still the same movie.
Beowulf: They say you have a monster. They say your lands are cursed. I am Beowulf, and I will kill your monster.
Other than that, the film is kind of a guilty pleasure - the visuals were often stunning, and the second half of the film was riviting. Having succumbed to the Water Demon's charms, Beowulf is gifted a long and prosperous life - but at the cost of his soul. He wants to be the hero that he was as a younger man, but since he is virtually impervious to attack, he loses the pleasure in combat, and therefore in life (and in himself as he beats himself up over not being able to stand up to the Demon).
The dragon was an astounding bit of cgi and that action led to a nice ending where the true hero, Weingart (Beo's right hand) is offered the same gift by the Demon. The emotions at work in his face are a wonder, and then his face turns to gold as the film fades to black; since gold is the color of the demon, one must assume that he too cannot resist her, and the tale repeats again.