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November 18, 2007 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | November 18, 2007 |

It’s strange that the quintessential Anglo-European chronicle, the haunter of high school English classes, the prime saga to undercut all heroic literature from Northern European vantages, the great inspiration for Tolkien (and, er, Michael Crichton) and countless others, has been given such sparse and scanty cinematic treatment until now. It’s likely that the saga has become so archetypal as to render any dramatic recreation lifeless without embellishments to the story or mode of storytelling, both of which Robert Zemeckis tries to bring to the table in this most recent adaptation.

But what, many have asked, was the point in making this new Beowulf a quasi-animated 3-D affair, other than to showcase Zemeckis’ continued hard-on for CG motion-capture technology? It’s an important question since the uncertainty in tonal intent does have a result on the final product. Is Zemeckis trying to make a cartoon, or an augmented version of reality? The answer lies somewhere in the middle: Zemeckis’ Beowulf is at times as close to realism as animation is likely to get, with its avatars miming real actors and real movements, but other embellishments that would be impossible for anything other than a computer to simulate look like exactly that — cartoonish superfluities. Zemeckis wanted the best of both worlds — real human action and outlandish fantasy, and his inability to properly balance the two results in a bizarre brand of diffidence; Beowulf is certainly spectacular to look at, but it’s often hard to take seriously.

It’s a shame, too, because the screenplay written by Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman is pretty good, an intriguing, if unoriginal take on the bare facets of the story.

Spoilers Hereafter

Gaiman and Avary present the Beowulf myth as exactly that — an accepted, but not fully explained story. The horror of Grendel, here depicted as a revolting, mewling mutant and obvious Halfling, is that he’s the bastard spawn of King Hrothgar, seduced by Grendel’s demonic, succubus mother (Angelina Jolie). Hrothgar’s sins have literally returned to haunt him. This isn’t the first time someone has posited this theory as an explanation of Grendel’s behavior, but Gaiman and Avary go one step further by making Beowulf susceptible to the same impulse — after felling the demon he forges into the Mother’s lair for the fabled battle, but instead of killing her, he’s also seduced by her rapaciously sexy wiles. Beowulf lies about this encounter, which results in another demon — the dragon that will eventually kill him. Fans and scholars may be uncomfortable with these changes, but they shouldn’t confuse discomfort with the change itself and the reason for these changes. Reimagination is an essential part of interpretation, and the changes wrought by Gaiman and Avary are mostly interesting ones which give an archetypal flaw to Beowulf’s heroic complex.

The writing bolsters Beowulf a bit, but Zemeckis is an entertainer above all else — to his credit, he succeeds — the 3-D romps and impressive visuals are damned engaging on a visceral level, but they also bring the collective I.Q. of the film down to forgettable dimensions. As awe-inspiring as the film’s generated imagery is, the millions of tiny nuances which make up genuine human emotion aren’t found here; graphical animation will probably never bridge that gap. Though they’re impossibly rendered here, the characters onscreen look and feel like milk-eyed automatons desperate to mime real humans, and only Ray Winstone’s sweaty snarl brings us down to the Realm of Real enough to be affecting.

Will this Beowulf be remembered for anything other than an attempted leap into a new breed of filmmaking, where CG clones approximate real actors and digital landscapes all but replace genuinely Earthy locations? Probably not; Beowulf is still too flawed even as an animated feature. The life of a motion picture, no matter how immense or impressive its visual laurels, is still no greater than the real-life hands that wrought it.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.

A Wrecker of Mead-Benches, Rampaging Among Foes

Beowulf / Phillip Stephens

Film | November 18, 2007 |

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