Beowulf (Digital 3D) Review
By Joe Lozito
"'Wulf" in chic clothing
Robert Zemeckis just can't help himself. The man who brought us "Back to the Future" and "Forrest Gump" loves technology. Whether it's splicing Tom Hanks into stock footage or cutting a hole in Meryl Streep in 1992's "Death Becomes Her", the director has never been shy about his special effects. After turning his 2004 animated spectacle "The Polar Express" into an IMAX 3-D release, he goes full bore with "Beowulf", a fully animated 3-D adaptation of the old English epic poem. Like the splashy, colorful mess that was "Back to the Future Part II", "Beowulf" goes for visual chaos at the expense of story.
And that's a shame. Because the script by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary is a nifty re-thinking of the oldest written English language story. The writers create connections that weren't in the original text around Grendel's parentage and the origins of that pesky dragon that shows up late in the game. These additions add a nice symmetry to Beowulf's days before and after he became king, and makes the character more man than superman. If "Beowulf" had been filmed in a "traditional" way, it might have been a better movie.
Naturally, the computer-generated landscapes and soaring camera work are first-rate but, as is typical of this genre, human faces just don't animate well. Their eyes look at best tired and at worst dead. Layer the 3-D effects on top and it leaves the characters looking oddly pudgy, like marshmallow men. One notable exception is Angelina Jolie who shows up as Grendel's demonic mother. No, the animators spent quite a bit of time getting her character's, er, dimensions just right. If her braid-whip doesn't get you, her mock stilettos will. The character Unferth, played by John Malkovich, fares the worst. When you combine the actor's nutty, Walken-esque performance with his avatar's lifeless expression, you come out with a few of the movie's many unintentional chuckles.
The 3-D technology itself is getting better and better. I have to admit, I jumped once or twice. But let's be honest, it's still little more than a gimmick. Was there anything about the "Beowulf" story that required 3-D? Nothing I can remember from English class. No, but it allows Mr. Zemeckis to end a scene by following a rat through the rafters and into the talons of some winged creature which then glides over the countryside into the next scene. And of course, the filmmakers can't resist the occasional sword thrust at the screen or arrows shot at the camera. We'll forgive them those indulgences.
The performers themselves (particularly Ray Winstone as the titular Nordic hero) go for it with the high-camp gusto of an acting troupe after a midnight showing of "300"
. "I AM BEOWULF!" he is known to bellow. The always-odd Crispin Glover gives the monster Grendel the Gollum treatment, but something tells me the actor's motion-capture performance was more interesting than the overly-grotesque creature animated in his stead. Like much of the film, it's ironically lacking in poetry.