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Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2007 02:31 pm

Blood, guts, and pixels

Animation gets in the way of compelling Beowulf saga

Untitled Document There’s no denying that some of the visual effects used by filmmaker Robert Zemeckis in Beowulf are spectacular, but the technology unfortunately distracts from an otherwise compelling story. Essentially Zemeckis uses the same motion-capture animation process he last employed in The Polar Express, making his actors don bland blue outfits on green stages and later filling in their surroundings and wardrobe with the use of computers. The tale would have been better told as a live-action feature, buoyed by computer effects, as in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The film is based on the classic Danish poem about the warrior Beowulf (Ray Winstone) who takes on the fearsome Grendel (Crispin Glover), a creature who has ravaged the realm of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins). Beowulf slays the savage beast, only to fall under the sway of his enemy’s mother (Angelina Jolie), who sets out to avenge her son. As much a cautionary tale on the seductive aspects of absolute power and fame as it is a modern action movie, the film is a frustrating mix of solid vocal dramatizations and compelling storytelling oddly coupled with a cutting-edge aesthetic that will simultaneously captivate and distract the viewer. The battle sequences are top-notch, and the duels between Beowulf and Grendel are genuinely exciting, and the overall dreariness of the film lends it a dark tone befitting the tale.
The voice work is solid throughout, and it is to the cast’s credit that any sort of humanity is brought to these characters. Winstone is properly heroic but wonderfully human when things go awry, and Hopkins’ royal bearing shines through. Jolie is fine as well, dripping sex with her languid movements and thick-as-honey inflections, and Glover is menacing and tortured as Grendel, for whom we can’t help but feel a bit of pity despite his hideous appearance and actions. Beowulf is not so much a bad movie as it is a confused one. The graphics are impressive, but their cold veneer is at odds with the primal qualities of this tale. Although some young viewers may go in search of the poem after seeing the film, it’s likely that scholars and fans of the story will be put off by the 21st-century sheen that Zemeckis has put on it. This is a story of blood, guts, and raw power. It should not be told in a way that negates these very elements.
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