Beowulf: Zemeckis’ Technically Innovative Film

A sensorial experience, that’s a feast to the eyes and ears but less so to the mind and soul, Robert Zemeckis’ technically innovative “Beowulf,” a retelling of the legendary poem as an action-adventure-mythological-epic, should satisfy young viewers as a new kind of entertainment.
Too bad, this mostly thrilling saga overextends its welcome by at least 20 minutes.

Taking to heart the criticism addressed at his previous animation, “The Polar Express,” which split reviewers, Zemeckis has improved his technology considerably. Seeing the PG-13 picture in its 3-D IMAX format should become a must-event for film lovers interested in the future of the medium.

Tough targeted at all members of the family, the saga’s setting, a fantasy-magical era replete with big heroes and equally big monsters, adventure and valor, gold and glory, sin and guilt, desire and carnality, is obviously more suitable for young audiences, but it should be embraced by adult viewers who like movies that appeal to the “childish” or “child-like” instincts in them.

One could almost hear arguments among fans as to which kind of film is more satisfying, the equally muscular but stylistically different “300,” or this “Beowulf” Opinions should differ among critics and viewers.

There have been numerous films of the legend of “Beowulf” (most recently in 2005 with Gerard Butler in his pre-“300” era) and similar offshoots (“The Vikings”), but this version benefits not only from state-of-the-art visual and aural effects, but also from a superlative cast, headed by Ray Winstone as the titular hero, Anthony Hopkins as the King, Robin Wright Penn, John Malkovich, Angelina Jolie, and last but not least, Crispin Glover (who had acted in Zemeckis’ “Back to the Future”) as the monster.

Scribes Neil Caiman (“Sandman”) and Roger Avary (who co-won with Tarantino the Screenplay Oscar for “Pulp Fiction”) more or less stick to the basic Danish poem in retelling the heroic adventure of the exceptional Beowulf (Winstone), who volunteers to save the ancient Danish kingdom from annihilation by an ungodly creature. Brimming with confidence, ambition, and bravado, the handsome blond Viking, who rises to six-foot-six-inch, succeeds to the throne, after rescuing with his exceptional prowess King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins, essaying his native Welsh accent).

Hrothgar harbors a secret past that comes back to haunt him and his kingdom in the form of the monster Grendel. But until Grendel’s horrifying appearance, Hrothgar leads a charmed life–he and his entourage are profligate, partaking in sensual pursuits and pleasures. Not for long, though. The kingdom is devastated and damaged by Grendel (Glover), a ruthless monster that tortures and devours its residents, leaving the country in a state of panic, fear and disarray.

In ridding the kingdom of the savage beast, Beowulf gains fame and fortune for himself. However, human nature being what it is, Beowulf is not above temptations of the flesh, when encountering the seductress siren and Grendel’s mother, who is her son’s sole confidante, guardian–and avenger.

Reportedly the oldest surviving epic poem in the English language, “Beouwlf” is a morality tale about the eternal conflict between good and evil, valor and cowardice, restraint and excess, love and carnality. For those who care, most of the binary oppositions that structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and Russian structuralist Alexander Propp have detected and deconstructed in their analysis of national myths and folk tales, are manifest here.

Zemeckis and his team have made the smart, pragmatic decision to bring the mythic saga down to earth, make it more accessible and relevant to contemporary audiences by focusing on Beowulf’s style of leadership, or more specifically, how he handles fame, riches, and power, assets that ultimately shape him in his capacities as a warrior, a leader, a husband, and a man.

Though it’s never been clearly established, many historians suggest that the poem was written between the seventh and twelfth century, even though the basic story had been told for centuries through oral history, passed from one generation onto the next. The writers claim that while keeping the poem’s essence, they have added some text to the source material, enriching the characterizations, but all in line with what monks (the only people who could write back then) might have done. In their hands, “Beowulf” becomes the source and foundation of more modern mythic heroes, such as Conan the Barbarian, and American comic-strip creations, such as Superman, Batman, and the Incredible Hulk.

In using performance capture, a wide range of digital sensors are attached to the actors/characters’ faces and bodies through a form-fitting Lycra suit, so that their live performances are vividly “captured” and then input into computers. The action takes place in an invisible box known as a “volume,” which is divided up into quadrants that can contain as many as 40 cameras. The “volume” is performance capture-speak for soundstage; it’s so-called because it allows multiple cameras to photograph the scenes in a three-dimensional space. The classic geometric formula for volume is x, y and z, representing width, height and length. Specifically, the “volume” is the area where the cameras are all aimed, within which face and body data are captured. Takes, or rather beats, from multiple capture sessions are then edited, blended, mixed and matched.

The new technology of performance capture enables two forms of casting, one for performance and one for likeness, which means that the director can separate between the character’s looks in the film and the performer’s portrayal of that character. The blend of these seemingly irreconcilable aspects becomes a directorial challengeand aesthetic choice.

This gap is more evident in the case of some actors, particularly Winstone, who sounds but doesnt look like his character (Remember “Sexy Beast”). But in all fairness, Beowulf is so much bigger than life, that no human actor, not even Stallone or Schwarzenegger at their prime, could have fully embodied the character. Initially, Winstone taps powerfully into his primeval instincts and animalistic part, vividly conveying a monstrous man whose demonic greed for gold, ambition, power, and fame ultimately consumes him.

Similarly, in a traditional film, Grendel would be a huge puppet, further magnified by computer graphics. But here, Glover ably projects the creature’s pain and suffering without being limited by prosthetics or fake suits. Glover creates a character that’s helpless and tormented because of his physical deformity, and he brings out the duality of warmth and humanity, rage and pain, to his hideous creature.

In contrast to Winstone and Glover, there’s more congruence between the two facets of Angelina Jolie, who looks and sounds the same. Jolie is perfectly cast as a dangerous, seductive creature that plays on the weaknesses of all men, including the King, Beowulf, and Grendel. You’ll get a kick out of the erotic sight of the physically alluring Jolie, emerging out of the water, clad as it were in gold, while wearing matching color high-heel shoes.

Though primarily a marvel to the senses, considering its objective limitations and constraints, “Beowulf” has a decent share of emotional and more intimate moments–about half of the yarn is truly engaging, while other half, is driven by special effects and other devices that will keep the more discerning audience at a distance.

Overall, “Beowulf” is better paced and more engaging than “The Polar Express.” The movie contains several dramatic confrontations and “small” climaxes, some at sea, with water splashing all over you. The saga then builds up to a big, too long a climax in which Beowulf fights the dragon with swords that reach all the way to your theater seat. It’s in these sequences that Zemeckis reveals his linkage to Spielberg and his heritage circa the “Jurassic Park” pictures. (It’s interesting to observe that Spielebrg is not making these kinds of films anymore)

Industry experts predict that 3-D should become the trend of the future for animation as well as live-action. At least half a dozen films, including New Line’s remake of Jules Verne’s classic sci-fi “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” are in the works.

As a mythological-historical fable, “Beowulf” lands itself to Zemeckis’ technical wizardry and courageous experimentation since we don’t expect any photographic realism from that genre.

Nonetheless, while mostly capturing the performers’ creative expressions, this new kind of entertainment still retains some cartoon-like, occasionally campy, elements, which the film’s excessive running time makes all the more noticeable. Clocking in at 115 minutes, “Beowulf” overextends its welcome by at least 20 minutes or so.

Cast

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

Credits

A Paramount (in U.S.)/Warner (international) release of a Paramount presentation, in association with Shangri-La Entertainment, of an ImageMovers production.
Produced by Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis, Jack Rapke.
Executive producers:Martin Shafer, Roger Avary, Neil Gaiman.
Co-producer, Steven Boyd.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis.
Screenplay, Neil Gaiman, Roger Avary.
Camera: eluxe color, digital 3-D, Imax 3-D), Robert Presley
Editor:Jeremiah O’Driscoll.
Music: Alan Silvestri.
Original songs: Glen Ballard, Silvestri. Production designer: Doug Chiang.
Supervising art director: Norm Newberry.
Art director: Greg Papalia.
Set designer: Scott Herbertson.
Set decorator: Karen O’Hara.
Costume designer: Gabriella Pescucci.
Sound: William B. Kaplan.
Sound designer: Randy Thom.
Sound editor: Dennis Leonard.
Re-recording mixers, Thom, Tom Johnson, Dennis Sands.
Visual effects supervisor: Jerome Chen.
Executive visual effects producer: Debbie Denise.
Senior visual effects producer: Chris Juen.
Digital effects supervisor: Sean Phillips.
Animation supervisor: Kenn McDonald.
Animation and imagery: Sony Pictures Imageworks.
Stunt coordinator: Garrett Warren.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 115 Minutes.