Saturday, June 14, 2008
(Image from IMP Awards)
The most ancient of English language tales is tweaked and brought to life quite spectacularly by director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary in this performance capture based computer animated 3-D adventure film. The classic tale tells of the heroic Geat warrior Beowulf (Ray Winstone), who arrives in Denmark to rid King Hrothgar's (Anthony Hopkins) lands of a beast named Grendel (Crispin Glover) who has terrorized their Great Hall. Beowulf, accompanied by friend Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson) and a band of Geats, makes boastful promises and wins the admiration of Queen Wealtheow (Robin Wright-Penn) but fails to convince the King's adviser Unforth (John Malkovich), who openly mocks him. When Grendel arrives to wreak havoc, an intense battle ensues that leads to the discovery that there is another monster waiting in the midst - Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie).
I can only remember the original story vaguely from many years ago, and a little research reveals that a lot has been changed from the original narrative despite the most basic elements still being in place. The changes serve to tie the disparate narrative together, and taken as a whole they work despite changing the nature of the story. Beowulf was originally a virtuous hero, whereas here he's a flawed character. The monster Grendel is less pure evil and has his own motivation for attacking humans. I'm not going to sit around comparing the two (I'd have to read the story again first), but I will say that I thought this adaptation works quite well in presenting a compelling story with some intriguing variations on the original. Some of this dialogue misses on occasion, but the writing is generally of a high standard, even if the characters lack much in the way of depth. As a heroic adventure epic, the story is more than satisfying.
The real big deal about 'Beowulf' is the fact that it's a 3-D performance capture film. Now, I obviously wasn't fortunate enough to see this in 3D (I hear it's stunning), but what I viewed on my puny monitor was pretty stunning in its own right and easily the most visually impressive film of this type. I was quite skeptical about the need to perfectly capture the actors' performances like this - why not just make it live action? - but now that I've seen it I can understand how it allows for some very impressive camera work and spectacular visuals while also allowing the many disparate scenes to achieve a uniformity that is nigh on impossible to achieve in live action (think of how often even the best special effects heavy films have moments that stand out jarringly). The 3D aspect is also exploited time and time again, with things pointing towards or flying at the camera. The quality of the performance capture is a mixed bag, sometimes stunningly realistic but at other times decidedly ordinary; still, overall the film avoids that distracting plasticine look and after the first 15 minutes or so I was completely immersed in the world that was created and stopped noticing the animation - a good sign that it was effective.
Zemckis, a filmmaker I really like who was responsible for some of my favourites (Back to the Future, Contact) hasn't made a particularly noteworthy film in some time, so I was surprised at how entertaining this was, and also how brutal. The film is littered with strong visuals, and the action is spectacular with the dragon battle in particular being a standout. None of this is 'realistic' mind you, instead it's done in an outrageous style, and I wouldn't have it any other way. The drama aspects of the film are not as strong, but for this type of film one doesn't expect a Merchant-Ivory style of storytelling, though the scenes between Beowulf and Grendel's mother were definitely captivating. There are also some pretty funny moments, and while most of those come from the script the scene in which Beowulf fights Grendel in the nude is hilarious in the way his manhood is creatively blocked, Austin Powers style! I'm not sure this was intentional, but it resulted in an action sequence that managed to be as humourous as it was exciting!
The cast is pretty good, though I have to say no one really stands out. It's awesome that Ray Winstone is the main star of the film though - Will Scarlett off Robin of Sherwood headlining a big budget Hollywood Epic? It's like bizarro world! - and his performance, while initially jarring (he's the only guy whose 3D facsimile doesn't look anything like him; instead, it looks somewhat like Sean Bean) what with a heavy Cockney accent coming out of the lips of a Scandinavian hero, eventually grows on you and by the end of the film his casting seems completely appropriate. Angelina Jolie also weilds a weird accent, somewhat reminiscent of her work in Alexander, but it works and that coupled with her CGI nakedness makes for an, erm, captivating performance! I would say that Crispin Glover is the scene stealer as the crazed creature Grendel - crazed seems to be a natural for this guy! Hopkins, Wright-Penn, and Gleeson are all fine, with Malkovich being the most memorable of the supporting characters as the scheming advisor.
'Beowulf' is surprisingly good. I didn't anticipate liking it as much as I did, and to be honest I think I'm being a bit generous in understating some of its flaws, but I think it works better than a lot of people give it credit for. It's a terrifically entertaining adventure film, and offers the type of visuals that you really won't have seen anywhere else. Sure, this type of thing will grow old fast, and later films will obviously eclipse this one in terms of technology, but I think it'll stand the test of time as a good movie even when the CGI work looks antiquated. It's the best Robert Zemeckis movie in a long time!