Monday, November 26, 2007

'Beowulf' excites but lacks dimension

“Beowulf” utilizes a sophisticated form of computer animation blended with the latest in 3-D technology to create an extraordinary cinematic experience. The catch is you need to go to an IMAX theater to experience the film as it was truly intended to be seen.

Watching the 2-D version of “Beowulf,” you can’t help feeling cheated. The film makes no attempts to hide the fact that things should be flying at you, and it is frustrating and even distracting at times.

The epic poem “Beowulf” is juiced up with violence and sex in telling the tale of the title hero and his battle with the vile monster Grendel. People are ripped in half, heads are bitten off and a copious amount of blood is spilled. Angelina Jolie as the monster’s mother is more or less, with the emphasis on the more, nude for her entire performance. If the movie were live action it would be a hard R; as is, it has managed a PG-13.

“Beowulf” is entirely animated and employs motion capture, the same technology used to create Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” and that director Robert Zemeckis also used for “The Polar Express.” Unlike a traditional animated feature, the actors not only provide their voices, but their performances are then made into computer-generated versions of themselves.

With the exception of Ray Winstone (“The Departed”), who is transformed into the muscular Beowulf, and Crispin Glover ("Back to the Future"), who becomes the grotesque Grendel, all of the cast members are animated to look as they do in real life. You’ll easily spot the likes of Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich and Brendan Gleeson.

The effect worked in “The Polar Express,” where the film adopted the drawing style of Chris Van Allsburg's book, but here, with a more realistic look, it becomes disconcerting. Many will be able to look past it, but for my money it took me out of the film. Part of the problem is inconsistency. Sometimes the characters look remarkably real, while others times they look like wax figures come to life. I wanted to see the real actors, not these dead-eyed simulations.

That being said, the world in which the characters exist and the sea creations and dragon Beowulf does battle with are amazing to look at. On the level of action, “Beowulf” delivers with visceral, well-directed sequences that blend cringe-worthy gore with pulse-quickening excitement. When focused on the action, the movie is engaging, but the dialogue and plotting is weak. The stretches between the action sequences are slow with mostly perfunctory dialogue to get you from point A to B. All the characters with the exception of Beowulf are one dimensional at best.

Beowulf is arrogant and full of pride, and that becomes his curse when Grendel’s mother tempts him with promises of power and lust. It sets up an interesting internal conflict for the latter part of the film, which flashes forward to show Beowulf as an elder king. Winstone is good as Beowulf and adds some nuance to the character during these scenes. Alas, just as the script is finally adding depth, this conflict is put aside to set up another spectacular action sequence. The action thrills, but is it asking too much to have a bit more substance with the spectacle?

As is often the case in Hollywood action films, the female characters are negligible. Robin Wright Penn (“Forrest Gump”) and Alison Lohman (“Big Fish”) as Beowulf’s wife and mistress are given nothing more than standard motions to go through. Jolie is asked only to be seductress, and she does it exceptionally well.

In his review, Roger Ebert wrote: “Am I the only one who suspects that the intention of director Robert Zemeckis and writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary was satirical?” He may be on to something. There are subversive touches throughout, including Jolie’s high healed feet (you read correctly) and Beowulf’s decision to do battle with Grendel in the nude, but if satire of the fantasy epic genre was their intention then Gaiman and Avary didn’t push it far enough.

The screenplay really is a disappointment, as both writers have shown wit and intellect before. Gaiman wrote the award-winning “Sandman” graphic novels, and Avery co-wrote “Pulp Fiction.” Give credit where credit is due, though, Beowulf’s temptation by Grendel’s mother, the film’s most interesting aspect, was a departure from the original story.

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