Beowulf My Reviews 24 NOV 2007

BeowulfPride is the curse. Director Robert Zemeckis brings us Beowulf, the 2007 animated epic film adapted from the Old English heroic epic poem , Beowulf.

If you aren’t familiar with the legendary (and lengthy) poem , it basically tells the story of Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, who battles three antagonists: Grendel, who is attacking the Danish mead hall called Heorot and its inhabitants; Grendel’s mother; and, later in life after returning to Geatland (modern southern Sweden) and becoming a king, an unnamed dragon. He is mortally wounded in the final battle, and after his death he is buried in a barrow in Geatland by his retainers.

Author Neil Gaiman and screenwriter Roger Avary wrote the screen adaptation and although followed the original poem closely for the first half of the movie, they begin deviating quite drastically from the original in order to introduce greater motivations and thereby bring about a stronger and more suitable movie experience.

Zemeckis returns to his favored technology, motion capture, for this movie (exactly what he did with his earlier release, The Polar Express), the result of which is a 3D world that feels very much like this year’s Shrek 3 release, but with more detailed and expressive human characters. The cast members of Beowulf were all filmed on a motion capture stage, meaning that although the figures’ physiques don’t quite match up, the facial features of all the characters bear much resemblance to the actors.

The central protagonist, Beowulf, is portrayed by Ray Winstone, who also plays a dwarf performer, and Beowulf’s son, in both human and dragon form. – The antagonists Grendel and Grendel’s mother are portrayed by Crispin Glover and Angelina Jolie, respectively while King Hrothgar is portrayed by Anthony Hopkins. Unferth is portrayed by John Malkovich.

Beowulf is pretty much a simplistic action story at heart, where you have an annoyingly brash and confident (read very one-dimensional) hero character who gets set loose on a couple of monsters to provide us with some decent hack and slash action sequences (well okay, wrestling nude with Grendel isn’t exactly hack and slash, but it is a pretty decent action sequence nevertheless). A little depth is attempted by adding a few skeletons to the closest for the story, but in all honesty, despite all the little machinations that are attempted to be injected into the story, it kind of falls flat and you are left wondering just why the hell the characters are even bothering doing what they do. Character development is non-existent, hell, character backgrounds aren’t even established! Motivations are simplistic and in fact, the whole movie comes across as an extended game FMV without the excitement of actually playing the game between the cutscenes.

On the technology front however is where Beowulf scores its big points. The film is completely CGI generated and looks superb. The level of texture detailing, right down to the hair fibers is excellent and there are moments where you can’t help but try and figure out whether or not you are being shown live or animated actors. Of course the motion capture makes the character movements quite realistic and because the facial captures are so human-like you can’t help but smile as you instantaneously recognize some of the actors behind the characters. However, as clever and as skillfully done as the movie’s visuals are, there are some serious problems that do crop up, which mar the experience ever so slightly.

One of the biggest faults without a doubt is frame rate slowdown. In certain sequences you can’t help but notice a slight slowdown in the images, similar to what you get when playing a game and the machine struggles to render all the visuals simultaneously. This doesn’t happen all that often, but it is in fact rather noticeable when it does occur. A second problem, directly related to the first, is the problem of dropped frames. You’ll quickly spot a moment or two in the movie when a couple of frames are in fact totally dropped, leading to a slight …skip’ in animation. While you are used to this in games, one can’t help but feel that this is totally unacceptable for a movie theatrical release.

The other problems with the visuals stem from the sophistication levels. Because the motion capture process provides us with so life-like imagery, the deviations from real-world movement are harsher on our eyes and picked up on more easily. You’ll quickly spot animations that weren’t motion captured, simply because they don’t gel with the other movements you are seeing on screen. A good example of this is the sentry on the horse, galloping across the pebble beach. The horse’s movements are completely unnatural and it looks like its hooves have been animated using a simple cycle animation! And then of course there is the fact that computer-generated models are unable to stand with their arms at their sides. The shoulder joints always lead to the arms being slightly away from the sides, another visual aspect that becomes a little jarring thanks to the life-like faces in use.

On the actual, colour and texture side, despite all the bump-mapping and sophisticated physics used on the materials and environment, you are still left with a very flat world, and it kind of feels like you haven’t moved out of Shrek’s animated world. Again because of the discordance this creates with the life-like facials, this brings a slightly negative reaction to the movie’s visuals.

On the music front however, Beowulf can do no wrong. Beautiful, heroic and powerful arrangements fill the movie, bringing the actions sequences to a crashing crescendo and painting the serious and mysterious tones in the movie’s more intimate and dramatic sequences.

The movie is well crafted, with that I can’t disagree. However, and this is a big however, the film doesn’t really work as an action movie, simply because the visuals don’t work all that well for this genre. The reason 2D animation works for action sequences is simple enough: 2D animation can be done stylishly. The visuals gone for in Beowulf are not stylish in nature, so it comes across as flat and a poor approximation of live action.

In all honesty, this movie would have made a great B-grade live action movie, and I find it a pity that Zemeckis decided to play around with technology instead of focusing on getting a tighter script and directing a …real’ movie. As it is, despite Beowulf’s technical prowess, as a moviegoer you aren’t going to get anything out of this movie apart from maybe a feeling of lost time (and the ability to recognise a weak script).

A DVD rental at best I’m afraid.

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About Craig Lotter

South African software architect and developer at Touchwork. Husband to a cupcake baker and father to two little girls. I don't have time for myself any more.