This retelling of the epic poem about a monster-slaying hero unites computer-generated imagery with live-action performances through the magic of motion-capture. Unfortunately, the marriage breeds a bizarre hybrid, as strange (if not quite as ghastly) as the half-human, half-demon Grendel that haunts the first act. Like that hideous monster, BEOWULF is an almost inexplicable mutant mishap, as if the genetic synthesis combined – and somehow magnified – the worst rather than the best of both parents. The background designs are beautiful; the creatures are imaginatively conceived; the human characters are rendered in fine detail and enacted with spirited performances. And yet, the result is artificial and unconvincing, with all the life of a perfectly preserved corpse manipulated by marionette strings: no matter how deft the performer, no matter how elaborate the movments, what we are watching looks dead.
The screenplay by Gaiman and Avary includes the essential elements of the classic tale, which basically consists of the hero Beowulf confronting first Grendel, then Grendel’s Mother, and finally a fatal dragon. A few plot complications have been added to modernize the story for the movies: since the original is a series of episodes, plot threads have been added to tie the fragments together, involving Grendel’s parentage, Beowulf’s relationship with Grendel’s mother, and the origin of the dragon.
A certain self-conscious, almost post-modern sensibility creeps in to the film. Part of the seductive pitch made by Grendel’s Mother is that she will make Beowulf an undefeatable hero immortalized in songs sung long after his death; the film gives glimpses of this future when Beowulf’s heroics are re-enacted and recited during his lifetime. This interesring concept slides into pretentiousness. As often happens when these old legends are put on film, the screenwriters feel obligated to make some commentary on the end of an era, on the Death of Heroes, Gods and Monsters. We’ve seen it before, in such 20th century films as JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, CLASH OF THE TITANS, EXCALIBUR, and DRAGONSLAYER; going back a century further, one could argue that it is the whole raison de’tre behind Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungen” quartet of operas.
In this case, the message takes the form of vaguely anti-Christian pronouncements. The first jab comes when a character explains the “new” concept of the resurrection – while taking a piss. The irrevernce is far from subtle. Later, after Grendel has attacked, Unferth (Malkovich) suggests (in addition to propitiating all the familiar gods) that a sacrifice be made to the new (actually five hundred years old at the time of the story) Roman god called “Christ Jesus,” in the hope that He can protect them from the monster. This is one of the script’s few clever moments, hinting that Unferth sees Jesus as just another of the Roman pantheon, whose favor can be gained not through righteous behavior but through performing the proper rites. In the third act, Unferth, who is portrayed as a vituperative coward, has become a convert to Christianity, at least in appearance (there is little evidence that he espouses any of its core beliefs). Meanwhile, the great hero Beowulf remains a non-believer, complaining that the new religion has ended the age of heroes, who have been replaced by wimpering martyrs.
One hopes this is just the character talking for himself, not as a mouthpiece for the filmmakers. It is certainly bizarre to imagine that, at the beginning of the new Millennium, the allegedly liberal elite of Hollywod are lamenting that a belief system that preaches forgiving one’s enemies should have eclipsed a primitive celebration of crude strength and violent conflict. Perhaps not, but the irrevernce does not extend to Beowful; there is little in the script that deconstructs his story or views the character askance through a 21st century perspective or in any way suggests that this sixth century warrior is anything less than the pinnacle of human achievement (unlike, say, a mini-masterpiece like KISS ME, DEADLY – which ate its cake and had it, too, depicting its hero as a crude thug while simultaneously inviting you to enjoy his simple-minded ass-kicking methods).
Robert Zemeckis certainly serves up the action as if it were an on-screen celebration of mayhem for its own sake. Never a subtle director, Zemeckis often has often evinced entertaining capacity for going completely over the top; unrestrained by the physical limitations of live-action, he really lets loose. The camera wips, pans, and zooms, catching every crunching bone and mangled body, savoring (at least in the unrated director’s cut on DVD) every drop of blood, every bit of bone marrow. Yet, strangely, the visceral impact is almost nil. There are a few effective moments (the horror of Grendel ripping men in half, the seductive lure of Grendel’s mother), but in general the CGI work never matches the best of Japanese anime, which is far more effective at depicting violence and eroticism.
The excellent cast gives strong vocal performances (although one wonders why so many Danes have Brit accents). Unfortunately, the animation technique creates only the simulacrum of a physical performance. There certainly seems to be potential in using a talented actor like Ray Winstone to give life to a computer-generated hero with the perfect he-man physique, but the motion capture seems to capture only the motion; these are animated characters without the anima. An occasional gesture may suggest the breath of life, but too often the faces are expressionless, zombie-like; the actors end up resorting to silent movie pantomime (clasped hands, etc) to convey emotions. At least, Malkovich has a few good moments because his distinctive voice takes advantage of his character’s sarcastic dialogue, overcoming the weakness of the animation. Crispen Glover comes off best as Grendel, because he exploits the opportunity for wild, unrestrained physical expression of the sort that is not so easily lost in the translation to the digital realm.
The limitations almost work for Grendel’s Mother: despite Angelina Jolie’s campy accent, the character’s unchanging come-hither look conveys a mystique that would have been dissipated by normal human expressiveness (rather in the way that Heidi Klum appears as a mysterious embodiment of the female principle when her fixed expression – alluring and enigmatic – stares out from the pages of Sports Illustrated or Victoria’s Secret but reveals herself as simply a pretty woman when she smiles and chats on talk shows). The character’s impossibly perfect, Playboy-Centerfold-of-the-Century physique, coupled with spike-heeled feet (not shoes, feet) and a pig-tail hair-do that slithers like a real tail – all combine to create a fourteen-year-old boy’s ultimate wet dream, but the result falls considerably short of being a convincing sorceress-seductress. There is no mythic resonance to her confrontation with Beowulf; it’s a comic book scene, pretty but not erotic, and devoid of drama.
That’s the problem with the entire film really. BEOWULF looks great on the surface, but that’s all there is: surface. The CGI stylings don’t have the depth to support a mythic narrative, so what we get is a fairly typical Hollywood action film that just happens to follow, more or less, the story of Beowulf. (It is interesting to note how well such ancient stories conform to Hollywood conventions, being filled with undifferentiated supporting players who serve as monster fodder – sort of the ancient equivalent of Star Trek’s red shirt brigade.)
One comes away wondering why the story was presented via animation at all. Perhaps the fantastic nature of the narrative seemed suitable for the medium. Perhaps in this age of digital effects, where much of the footage would have been created in a computer anyway, doing the entire film in animation seemed to make sense. Whatever the case, Zemeckis fails to use the technique to create a world that suspends our disbelief for two hours while we relive tales of wonder and glory. His film lacks the spark that ignites the best cinefantastique: a true sense of wonder.
A sort of harder-edged follow-up to THE POLAR EXPRESS, Zemeckis’s previous motion capture opus, BEOWULF did not match the box office success of its predecessor, topping out at $82-million in U.S. theatres; fortunately, it earned another $112-million overseas. Some viewers seemed to find it inferior to the vaguely similar 300, and Rogert Ebert went so far as to suggest that the film is deliberately satirical. If so, audiences missed the joke.
BEOWULF made its DVD debut in three formats: a theatrical cut DVD, a “Director’s Cut” HD DVD, and an unrated director’s cut DVD, which bills itself as containing “more intense footage.” (The release of an HD DVD, at this point, seems almost like a quaint vestige of a rapidly receding past; presumably it was already in the works when news arrived that the format was on its way out.) Besides a bit more blood, the unrated DVD offers these bonus features:
- A Hero’s Journey: The Making of Beowulf
- Beasts of Burden: Designing the Creatures
- Creating the Ultimate Beowulf
- The Art of Beowulf
- The Origins of Beowulf
- Deleted Scenes
- Trailers and Previews (including BEOWULF, IRON MAN and a few others)
One thing you won’t get is the 3-D experience (the film was released in the stereo-vision process at some IMAX engagements). Perhaps a super deluxe Blu-ray release will include this feature sometime in the future.
A HERO’S JOURNEY: THE MAKING OF BEOWULF
DVD making-of featurettes tend to be promotional puff pieces, but this is an exception. With lots of behind the footage and on-set interviews, it provides a fascinating look at the motion-capture process. We see computer registration dots applied by the makeup department on Winstone’s face. The actors are photographed in costume, hair and make-up for reference shots, to help them get into character. We see blank sets and wire props – a metal wisker with a rubber attachment (for the actors to chew) stands in for chicken leg. The objects are weighted for actors, making them natural to hold, and color-coded for animators, making them easy to recognize.
Zemeckis provides his take on the story: “This has nothing to do with the Beowulf you were forced to read in junior high school. … It’s all about eating, drinking, killing, fornicating.”
Tom Hanks shows up briefly on set, joking about how much more difficult motion-capture was back in the day (i.e., 2004, the year of POLAR EXPRESS, in which he starred). Zemeckis says Peter Jackson advised him to use the motion-capture process from the beginning, instead of shooting live-action, which would have to be transferred to the digital realm anyway. It is easy to see why the decision would be a happy one: a boat scene during a raging storm, which would have taken a day to film live, is complete in forty minutes.
However, the decision is belied by what has to be the lightlight of the featurette: seeing Crispen Glover act out Grendel, tearing puppets in half. Without makeup, without backgrounds, the actor captures a level of ferocious insanity that is simply not on screen in the finished version, proving that there are obvious advantages to life-actio filmming, even if it lacks the polish of computer-generated movies.
BEASTS OF BURDEN: DESIGNING THE CREATURES
This is a bit more of a typical promotional piece, consisting of clips intercut with off-set interviews. We do learn that the designers took actors into account – for example, removing lumps from Grendel’s forehead to let Glover’s performance come through. And we find that, in addition to Beowulf, Winstone also played dragon, which was designed to incorporate some of his facial features, indicating a family resemblance to Beowulf.
THE ORIGINS OF BEOWULF
This consists of discussion regarding the poem and adapting it to the screen. There are broad claims about Beowulf being the grand-daddy of Arthurian legend and LORD OF THE RINGS. Everyone seems to have forgotten that The Odyssey predates it by millennia.
Zemeckis tells us, “Nothing about the orignal poem appealed to me.” He was drawn to the project by the screenplay. Writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary worked on assumption that monks who first transcribed the story edited out certain elements, so writers put back in what they imagined had been removed. It was also necessary to adapt the episodic original into a three-act movie structure.
“We had to do our one bit of serious damage to the Beowful poem,” says Gaiman, which consisted of keeping Beowulf in Denmark instead of sending him back home to become king. This helped provide more continuity. The story elements were further tied together by making King Rothgar the father of Grendel and Beowulf the father of dragon, implying that history is repeating itself (what happened to the former king recurs to the new king).
CREATING THE ULTIMATE BEOWULF
This is a short piece extolling the virtues of motion-capture, which allowed casting Beowful based on acting ability and then using computers to create the look of the character.
THE ART OF BEOWULF
This is more promotional-type stuff, about desiging the look of the film, taking historical references and exaggerating for cinema. Zemeckis expresses his conviction that computer imagery allows for larger-than-life stories – which is not quite born out by the finished film.
These consist of rough, unfinished computer work, with no lip movements or facial expression. None of it is particularly interesting; all of it was rightfully removed.
- Wealthow Shows Beowulf the Sundial: brief dialogue before the wait for Grendel. Beowful attempts to seduce the Queen by dwelling on the details of his potentially gruesome death. Not surprisingly, the attempt fails.
- Beowful Boasts to the People of Herot: Beowulf gives rousing speech in dinner hall.
- Celebration and Seduction: more footage between Beowulf and Queen, who accuses him of being driven first by greed then by lust.
- Wulfgar Meets Beowulf at the Stockade: a silly face off with Beowulf’s men being asked to disarm before enterting town. Watching a sword unsheathed, a seductive wench steals a line from DIRTY HARRY: “My, that’s a big one…”
- Beowulf’s Day – Unferth Finds the Horn: a long, continuous helicopter-type shot starting at the castle and flying to the home of Unferth. Sick of hearing the songs about Beowulf’s conquests, he laments their gaps and absurdities: “What the hell was Grendel? A cow? And what the hell was was Grendel’s mother? She doesn’t even have a name.”
- Cain on th Barrows (original): an extended version of a scene in the film, this one containing a flashback as Cain tells his story of how he found the golden horn.
BEOWULF (2007). Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Screenplay by Roger Avary & Neil Gaiman, based on the epic poem. Cast/voices: Ray Winstone, Robin Wright Penn, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovitch, Angelina Jolie, Crispin Glover, Brendan Gleeson.
Copyright 2008 Steve Biodrowski