Movie Review: Beowulf
By Matthew Huntley
November 29, 2007

Why, yes. I am naked.

If the classic poem Beowulf was an illustrated storybook, it might look something like this. Director Robert Zemeckis, who's obviously in love with progressive cinema, brings out the myth and epic grandness of his source while keeping the "movie" story exciting and emotional. His methods aren't always clear or satisfying, but they ultimately make for a compelling popcorn experience.

The film has provoked a lot of caution from moviegoers because of its animation style. My friend Brett, himself an animator, questioned Zemeckis' intentions for directing a $150 million motion capture film instead of a live action one, especially when each costs about the same and human actors give greater weight and complexity to the characters. Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia - all these movies were made with real people, gigantic sets and tons of special effects. So why would Zemeckis choose a different route for Beowulf, whose story calls for a similar scale?

Then again, why not? Just because live action fantasy is possible doesn't mean it's the best or only choice. Perhaps Zemeckis believed the story of Beowulf called for a different vision and style that regular human actors could not live up to. But if that's the case, why go to such great lengths to make the human characters look so real? Why not stylize the characters as much as the sets and creatures? Animation offers that luxury. What's the point of audiences saying, "Wow, that cartoon looks so real!" Trying to make animated characters appear as real as their human counterparts just doesn't seem practical.

With that said, Beowulf works as fantasy action, with some amazing visuals and heavy characters. This is Zemeckis' third venture into motion capture after The Polar Express and Monster House, the former which he also directed. Zemeckis' intention with Beowulf, I think, is to express how the titular hero's larger-than-life mysticism and abilities go beyond human. I think Zemeckis wants us to be aware we're watching animation, and not accept it as reality. After all, what would be the point? The very nature of fantasy and mythology is to displace us from the world in order to explain things about it. It's not to adhere to the laws of nature.

During its short existence, I have enjoyed motion capture films but still find a problem with how the technology renders characters' eyes. Unlike 2-D or computer animation, the animators try hard to make the characters' eyes look human, with realistic colors and sizes. But somehow, they still end up looking cross-eyed as if the characters are wearing masks. And because it's a character's eyes we first notice, that lack of depth gives way to an absence of soul. This is where filming humans would have worked better.

But that doesn't dismiss the movie's other virtues. Set in 700 A.D., King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) drunkenly celebrates his ruling over Heorot, a cold and rustic kingdom in a mountainous region of Denmark. One night, the monster Grendel (Crispin Glover), awakened and disturbed by Heorot's singing and merriment, attacks and kills several people in the mead hall. Unable to attack Hrothgar, Grendel retreats to his mother (Angelina Jolie).

Hearing of Heorot's need for help, the mighty Beowulf (Ray Winstone) sails in from Geatland, promising to protect Heorot from monsters. He's aided by a sidekick named Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson) and an army of warriors.

Only one man doubts Beowulf's abilities - the suspicious Unferth (John Malkovich), a man more willing to believe in the teachings of Jesus than a glorified hero. Hrothgar's Queen, Wealthow (Robin Wright-Penn), appears quite taken by the new hero and serenades him to sleep. That same night, Grendel attacks again, only he doesn't escape as easily, which sets up a greater battle between Beowulf and Grendel's mother and, later on, a fire-breathing dragon.

I have never read the long poem, but online sources reveal this adaptation differs significantly from the original, which itself may have been tweaked by translators. But even so, it's evident the broad strokes and themes of the poem are kept intact by screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, who have retained the mythology and human moral conflicts. The movie is visionary and paced in a classical sense. It's not very original, but it does contain several moments of thrilling violence and human theatrics.

As is typical of Robert Zemeckis movies, this one is loaded with action and special effects. These sometimes overshadow the human characters, but the movie sidesteps only becoming about these things because of the strong cast, including Hopkins, Winstone, Wright-Penn and even Jolie, whose sexuality is fully exploited to great effect.

There are some missteps in regards to the storytelling, one of which involves Beowulf's genitals. Instead of taking a risk and actually showing them or finding practical ways of hiding them, the movie resorts to cheap and unintentionally funny ways of obscuring Beowulf's manliness in the tradition of Austin Powers. During the screening, people were laughing instead of accepting that nudity was more common in the first century, when men and women weren't so self-conscious and protective of their bodies. The way Zemeckis films Beowulf when he's naked makes it seem like he was going for a joke even though the scene doesn't call for one.

And the ending feels too much like a video game. What is supposed to be the ultimate battle and emotional climax ends up looking like an ad for Xbox. Zemeckis uses too many long shots instead of close-ups to keep the action about the character and less about the technology that went into the designing and shooting of the scene.

But I ultimately liked Beowulf, and it pleases me to say that because, like many, I walked into the screening with a sneaking suspicion it wouldn't work. Like Brett, I found it hard to justify why Zemeckis would choose animation over live action when his intent seems so concentrated on making the characters simply look human.

Still, the movie made me hopeful that more doors can be opened for animation to conquer new cinematic feats that live action simply can't. But it's important to recognize that animation isn't merely seen as the only choice; sometimes it really is the best choice. I'm not convinced animation was the best choice for Beowulf, but I do think it turned out to be a good one.

NOTE: I saw the movie in 3-D and while it was mostly a pleasurable experience, there were times where it seemed the characters were standing in front a matte, which made it appear flat. If it's playing as a 3-D presentation near you, I recommend seeing it. Otherwise, a traditional theater will suffice.