Like most reviewers, I'll get this said before we go on. Go and see the film in 3D or better still in IMAX 3D. It truly is a stunning viewing experience.
However, as a film it is not without its problems and the motion capture technology is still flawed. Based on the Old English poem, Robert Zemeckis' film certainly has its better moments. The story of Beowulf, a warrior who comes to slay the hideous Grendel, the bastard offspring of King Hrothgar and the local demon, and later must battle his own bastard offspring in the form of a huge dragon, is here given a CGI sheen, an unfortunate humour bypass and a ridiculous timidity towards male nudity.
The voice talent is led by Anthony Hopkins as Hrothgar, John Malkovich as Unferth and Ray Winstone at Beowulf. From the outset, there is an obvious problem with Winstone's casting. Instead of a Danish inflection we get pure East End Cockney and it simply doesn't work. Hopkins and Malkovich acquit themselves better with Hrothgar painted as a weary and frustrated King and Unferth as a scheming cynic. Angelina Jolie gets a cough and a spit as the female demon.
Beowulf also has a knack of taking all his clothes off to wrestle with demons but his nudity and the ensuing violence and gore come as two poles on which to hang this film. If the film had been made in live-action then it certainly would not have received the 12A rating it currently has. The blood and guts here apparently are possessed of a distance leant to them by the fact that they are virtual gore but conversely the film makers then go to ridiculous lengths (pun intended) to cover up Beowulf's manhood. His crotch is hidden by various objects and people in a bizarre Benny Hill or Austin Powers routine that just makes a mockery of the film's hero, its narrative and its theme. If the film is about the sins of the father, does focus on unprotected sex or rape, and is about male power then why be so timid to cover it up. If the female demon can rise completely naked from her lake then shouldn't we get a glance of Beowulf's cock too? Never mind, he'll rip off Grendel's arm and tear out the heart of a dragon in gory detail and none of us will bat an eyelid. It certainly had the audience I was with sniggering away as did any number of unintentionally funny lines.
The other major problem with the film is that motion capture technology still doesn't imbue the characters with much of an emotional range. There have been improvements and characters do tend to be less zombie eyed in this film than in 'Polar Express' but it is still very difficult to accept these characters as real. I'm still at a loss as to why they went down this route. Why not film the entire thing with real actors? You might actually get a decent performance out some of the actors instead of this parade of synthetic woodeness. I can understand the point of slick animated films like 'Ratatouille' or 'Finding Nemo' because they are all about stylisation but I don't see the point of making an animated film where the emphasis is on making all of the human characters as real as possible. Just use a real actor for heaven's sake.
Despite those misgivings, this is worth seeing. The battles with Grendel (a superbly tortured performance from Crispin Glover) are effective and violently scary, the sexy seduction of Beowulf by the female demon and the final climactic battle with the dragon are really stunning sequences where the animation does its real work. There is a tendency to over indulgence in the fight with the dragon and you need to suspend your disbelief with that sequence but in the end this story is supposed to be about legendary heroes and therefore you must accept the thousands of years old licence with which it was told. There are some fantastic swooping camera moves, some great ground level and aerial shots and the sound is particularly great in the duel with the dragon with the rushing of wings, belching fire, crumbling battlements all combining with a heavy score.
It's moments of tenderness are brief and often embarassing. The death of Grendel is very well done and you do feel for the poor blighter but the death of Beowulf is a less affecting affair and I felt more sorry for the dragon as it melted away in the waves and briefly transmogrified itself into Beowulf's equally buff looking son. Heavens, they might even be accused of suggesting a daddy-son relationship in that last intimate moment. Beowulf's rippling torso does seem to be a cross between a 12 year old girl's fantasy and an idealised gay male conquest and that's the level this film maintains in its attempt to discuss the psychology of sexual relationships.
Stunning to look at in 3D but with a very one dimensional attitude to character and story, Beowulf is best seen as a bit of empty fun. The definitive version of the story still hasn't been made.
Beowulf (Cert 12A - Released 16th November 2007. Directed by Robert Zemeckis)
- Freelance writer and film and television researcher (for hire).
He has contributed to a number of books and websites about British archive television and cinema as well as recent television series including work for Moviemail, Frame Rated and Arrow Video. Publications include I.B Tauris's 'Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour - A Critical
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