Movie Review: Beowulf

By Matthew Huntley

November 29, 2007

Why, yes. I am naked.

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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).

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