There’s no mistaking it: Beowulf is a visual marvel that gives audiences a glimpse, for better or worse, at a world of digital filmmaking that does away with physical actors in favor of computer-generated performers. Yet, one can hardly shake the sense that this latest film from director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) is more software than cinema. Zemeckis is given a chance here to show off his latest technological toys, which have vastly improved since 2004’s The Polar Express, done in the same motion-captured (and utterly soulless) style of animation. Despite its flaws, however, Beowulf is a treat for the eyes and easily the best film version of the 8th-century Anglo-Saxon poem.
Yes, we can all forget that terrible 1999 Christopher Lambert adaptation of the story, which sought to give the simple tale of man versus monster a sci-fi update. You read that right. It’s also far more enjoyable than 2005’s Beowulf & Grendel, a little-known film starring 300's Gerard Butler.
The story of Beowulf should be simple enough for anyone who has taken an English literature course. Danish king Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) is having a bit of trouble with a local troll named Grendel (Crispin Glover) and enlists the aid of Beowulf (Ray Winstone) to kill the monster and bring peace to Herot, the king’s mead hall. Of course, things become more complicated when Grendel’s mother turns out to be a naked Angelina Jolie (sans nipples) and, well, the rest is spoiler territory.
Spoiler territory for an 8th-century poem? Yep. You see, Zemeckis and writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary took some necessary liberties with the latter half of the story, particularly the relationship between Grendel’s mother and Beowulf. I can’t say I blame them. If you’ve got naked Angelina Jolie on hand, it seems a crime to not fabricate at least one sex scene. Perhaps I’ve said too much.
While the animation is superb and the 3D effects are very well done, there’s still something flat about this film. Perhaps it’s the waxy digital characters, perhaps it’s the fact that the story, while it is the foundation for much of English literature, just isn’t all that substantial. At times, I felt like I was watching a very well-crafted video game cut scene. It just doesn’t pull you in. This is one film that would have benefited from a Sin City or 300 treatment. That is, actors in front of a blue screen. You’ll constantly be thinking to yourself “Wow, that looks like Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich (who plays the slimy Unferth), but they’ve got plastic complexions and their eyes look…off.” You’ll never feel like you’re watching a movie. It’s a fun, forgettable gimmick.
There are far worse films out right now (I’m looking at you, Alvin and the Chipmunks), and if you have any interest in seeing Beowulf at all, seeing it in Digital 3D is a necessity. Just don’t count on caring all that much about it once it’s over.