Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Beowulf / ***½ (PG-13)

Beowulf: Ray Winstone
Hrothgar: Anthony Hopkins
Wealthow: Robin Wright Penn
Wiglaf: Brendan Gleeson
Unferth: John Malkovich
Ursula: Alison Lohman
Grendel: Crispin Glover
Grendel’s mother: Angelina Jolie

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Robert Zemekis. Written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, based on the epic poem. Running time: 113 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sexual material and nudity).

My enjoyment of the new digitally created movie “Beowulf” may reflect the teenaged Dungeons & Dragons player in me more so than admirer of enduring English literature. What director Robert Zemekis has produced with this adaptation of the “epic poem” about the warrior Beowulf and his struggles against the monster Grendel and his even more vicious mother is a far cry from the story I could barely comprehend in my high school English class. It is more like the ultimate boy fantasy film with swords, sorcery, one hot babe and a dragon that puts most other screen representations of the fantasy beast to shame. It is more of a great ride than a deep musing on temptation and death. And it is a hell of a lot of fun.

Zemekis uses the same CGI motion capture technology that he did to create his previous animated features “Monster House” and “The Polar Express”. I criticized “The Polar Express” for its impression of being some sort of amusement park ride when I felt the spiritual Christmas material that he was tackling deserved a more mature approach. With “Beowulf” I don’t feel this is the case. Perhaps an English Literature professor might disagree with me, but the adventure here is not as weighed down by contrived meaning as that previous film.

For those who might be unfamiliar with the English lore of Beowulf and Grendel―as I imagine much of its audience will not―I offer this synopsis. Hrothgar is king of a secluded portion of rocky Scandinavian coast land circa 800 A.D. His warrior-based town is attacked by a monster known as Grendel, who kills even his best soldiers without much effort. Beowulf is a warrior from across the sea who answers Hrothgar’s call for anyone to defeat this beast. Beowulf’s reputation is grand, boasted mainly by Beowulf’s own stories of his unbelievable triumphs. But he proves his legend not entirely without merit when he fights off Grendel, following him back to his mother’s lair where a deal is struck between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother.

The nature of their deal I will leave for you to discover, but as my memory serves its results are much more spectacular here than they were in the poem. But then I believe this is where Zemekis and screenwriters Neil Gaiman (“MirrorMask”) and Roger Avary (“Silent Hill”) actually capture the true intention of the original material. The poem, which has no known attributed author, was likely intended as an entertainment, something that could be told around the mead hall each night, and that is certainly what is presented here.

I’ve read criticism that scoffs at how overdone the boastfulness of the characters is, but this type of chest banging must be necessary for survival in the warrior society presented here. While much of the dialogue could be laughed at when seen in a certain light, it is used to evoke a spirit of the environment in which this tale takes place. The cast assembled to perform the material (both vocal and motion capture) is first tier. Ray Winstone, Brendan Gleeson, Alison Lohman, John Malkovich, Crispin Glover, Robin Wright Penn, Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie form a dream cast that are able to work the material with more strength of conviction than others might. Jolie as Grendel’s mother is perhaps one of the most perfect casting decisions of the ages, as is Glover as the misunderstood beast.

The digitally created environments make this one of the most beautiful fantasy films ever experienced. Often budget constraints are too much for filmmakers to convincingly create and entire fantasy world. With digital technology the filmmakers are allowed to produce a variety of locales, each with their own distinct character. And the weather represented through sea squalls and snow storms creates a claustrophobic effect to the landscape that doesn’t hinder its scope.

While the backgrounds and sets look amazing, I can’t help but question why this movie is entirely created in the computer. In order to render the human form as realistically as possible, the motion capture process―which takes images of the actors and transfers them into a computer generated character―requires full performances from the cast. I suppose this process saves on scheduling all the cast members to perform at the same time and cuts down on costuming costs, but can it really save enough money to justify its ends―a realistically rendered digital character that looks exactly like the performer who plays the role in the digital capture process? And even this process does not create a perfectly realistic performance. There is still a stiffness to the movements of the characters that isn’t quite life-like.

I also have to wonder about the PG-13 rating when considering the computer rendition of Jolie’s seductive demon. For all intents and purposes Jolie appears in full frontal nudity here. The gossip columns even ran stories about how she had to warn Brad Pitt before the preview screening because she was embarrassed by her naked appearance. I don’t know if this story is true or not, and Jolie’s naked form is certainly not a negative aspect of the movie, but did the MPAA justify their rating because it was “animated”?

There are many other reasons this film should be rated R. Jolie’s naughty bits might be the only to appear however minimally covered, but Zemekis certainly teases the audience with Beowulf’s endowments as well. And the violence is extreme. It may not be gory with blood, but when you have a ten-foot monster chewing on a man’s head while drooling the evisceration onto bystanders below, there is a level of disgusting there that requires a certain level of maturity. Rarely has a film wanted so badly to be rated R and teased the audience with the possibilities that its creators seem so unwilling to fully embrace.

My third minor complaint comes with the 3-D aspect of the film. “Beowulf” marks Hollywood’s big push to make 3-D a viable format for wide release films again. Released in Digital 3-D on 740 screens nationwide and in IMAX 3-D, it is the biggest 3-D release to date. I agree that the format could provide an experience that audiences might want to come back for, but why must directors of 3-D insist on making a point in the action of shoving spears, hands and various flying objects into the camera. In an action film of this magnitude there are plenty of opportunities to appreciate the 3-D experience without having it shoved down your throat. When directors finally realize that the audience is aware they are watching a 3-D movie and don’t need to have it pointed out to them, it will become a much more widely accepted form of entertainment. Until that time it remains a gimmick.

Although I felt I had to make a point about these negative issues I had with the film, they were each very minor in respect to my enjoyment of the film. “Beowulf” is a fine achievement in fantasy filmmaking. The film retains the Old English poem’s themes of fidelity, loyalty, and even the birth of Christianity as a widely practiced religion. It does not spotlight these elements, but prefers to embrace the entertainment factor of a story involving demons, warriors and dragons. Perhaps it is these elements that encourage high school English teachers to inflict their students with a language that modern teens can barely comprehend even though it is called English. I’m not sure this film is exactly the Cliff Notes version of the epic poem, but it is fun.

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