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Beowulf cut a wide swath through theaters last year, especially in Imax 3D engagements, the place, we were assured, where it could really be appreciated. A required reading Epic Poem turned into a sword 'n' slash action saga, Robert Zemeckis' full CGI and motion capture movie is a testing ground for new technology. Like all things bright and new, it never becomes boring -- even if it points the way to a future of movies dominated by the momentary thrills of video games.
Alvy Singer's advice to community college student Annie Hall was, "Just don't take any course where they make you read Beowulf", wisdom that writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery have followed to the letter. Any faithful adaptation of the thousand year-old story would be commercial madness, as the poem far too difficult for the average high schooler. In the world of commercial film reality, any film project shouldn't aim above the fourth grade comprehension level. Zemeckis' re-interpreted Beowulf knows exactly what it is doing. Monsters and heroes enjoy a symbiotic relationship, and the Grendel clan of shape-shifting horrors is a reflection of the faults of humans who dare to aspire to greatness. Both Hrothgar and Beowulf succumb to Evil and sire malevolent bastards, ensuring unending cycles of terror. As an old man Beowulf tries to put a finish to the madness, and that's how the age of legends comes to an end.
That much of Beowulf is solid storytelling, even if it jettisons the source poem. Beyond that statement, Zemeckis' conception is disappointingly shallow and commercial. Only three or four characters are invested with personalities, and the rest of the merry Frisians and Vikings act like refugees from junior high school. We expect warrior jocks to be concerned only with fighting, drinking and whoring, but the script's idea of fun is PPP jokes -- constant allusions to penises, poontang and penetration. American Pie humor surfaces every ninety seconds or so, while the drunken Vikings chase nubile blondes around the mead hall. Hrothgar loses his sense of fun when his youthful indiscretions come back to haunt him, and Beowulf voices some okay expressions of disillusionment. John Malkovich's Unferth character ends up with little to do, while the women are ciphers. Crispin Glover mimes an uncomfortable state of agony. Angelina Jolie merely purrs and bats her eyes.
The film's obvious point of interest is its full exploration of motion capture and CGI. Although the actors were recorded for facial expression and body movements, Beowulf is one of the new synthetic cinema wonders made almost entirely in computers. The actors' performances have been reduced to the movements of dots on a grid, and the characters are created in virtual space with CGI animators smoothing out rough edges and providing enhancements. Ray Winstone has sagged a bit in the last few years, but his commanding voice is a good match for a new buff body. Angelina Jolie's nude water monster may have been created by using a body double, and then augmenting its curves even further. A hair braid as a tentacle? Stiletto heels built-in to the demon's foot? Grendel's mother is ready for Minsky's runway.
If one takes Beowulf as an animated cartoon, it's a marvel. The action is exciting, even if most of the movements of actors and monsters have that soft, fuzzy contact feel -- they often appear to have no weight. Faces and facial expressions are somewhere between department store manikins and the scary, stiff robots of Zemeckis' bad-dream fantasy The Polar Express. Again, Beowulf is looking for its own aesthetic and isn't trying for the photo-real effect of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Many more millions of fans flock to the peculiar action stylistics of high end video games, and that's the crowd Beowulf is courting.
The animated format allows content that would never be accepted for a strictly live-action picture, where censors mandate the trimming frames of gore and obscuring of sexual activity. This unrated disc of Beowulf has a few more moments of comic book mayhem. Our hero splits monsters in twain and hacks his way through giant gooey monster eyeballs. The animation directors play puerile Austin Powers games to conceal Beowulf's animated privates. By stylizing Grendel's mother into a slippery, silvery pubic-challenged statue, Zemeckis manages to present an entirely nude female figure, the kind of wet dream vision that appeals to 13 year-olds. Take it where you can get it, I suppose; with any savvy first grader now hip to the slimy depths of the Internet, sheltering kids is difficult, if not impossible.
The last act of Beowulf picks up with an exciting dragon combat. Over-hyped camera movement that ruins many live-action CGI pictures doesn't seem as offensive in this fully animated universe. Only a few shots are really trying too hard, such as a snap zoom back from a screaming wench's throat to the other end of the mead hall. The dragon is interesting enough to keep our attention, and it has a curiously knowing look in its eye. Oddly enough, by act three we've grown accustomed to the steel deadness of the human characters' eyes. Perhaps when Zemeckis turns Paradise Lost or The Song of Roland into an erotic slasher thriller, improved technology will be able make the animated characters seem more alive.
Paramount's unrated Director's Cut DVD of Beowulf comes with a battery of extras. No commentary appears but the director and producers contribute to featurettes on the monster designs and the film's 21st-century production technique. It's fascinating to see the actors work in a futuristic stage tricked out with electronic sensors. Another short shows us Ray Winstone's daily grind being made-up with dozens of sensor dots, which turn him into recordings of body-point coordinates in motion. Hs face will be mapped on later, from reference photos.
Zemickis has built a better filmic mousetrap from an executive's POV ... he can alter, enhance or delete any visual aspect of his film at any time. The actors are paid to emote and record the lines of the script; each capture recording begins with the cast standing still, their arms extended in a "T" formation, like Power Rangers. It's not all that different than Michael Crichton's fantasy Looker.
We get the distinct impression that the ultimate purpose of all this fascinating technology is to allow corporate committees to 'create' movies by executive memo -- with no need to tolerate demanding actors or troublesome guilds. Director Zemeckis has the confidence of a man completely in control of an army of mostly invisible digital animators and technicians: everybody, even the stars, can be replaced. The fine cast almost seems to have been rented from a database resource. How soon will someone digitize every filmic word spoken and image recorded of, say, Humphrey Bogart, in order to 'star' Bogie in new adventures 'captured' from 'real' performances?
The DVD feature comes with English, French and Spanish DD5.1 tracks and subtitles. Some things don't change -- the artwork of Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother has been altered to give the impression that she's wearing a skin-tight demon dress.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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