In his follow-up to 2004’s The Polar Express, director/producer Robert Zemeckis applies the performance capture he experimented with on that holiday family movie to a violent, sexualized adaptation of Beowulf that’s expressly for adults. The form seems ideal for the fantastical elements of folklore, and certain sequences are indeed spectacular, but, although some of the expressive limitations of the technology have been addressed, the human element is lost.
Reading between the lines and filling in the blanks of the original poem, screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary effectively overcome the clunky narrative and structure of the source text. In 6th-century Denmark, King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), known for his superior ale, has built a mead hall for his people’s enjoyment, but, across the moor, their revelry drives the monster Grendel (Crispin Glover) mad. His attack devastates the celebration, and the hall is closed until the hero Beowulf (Ray Winstone) arrives from Geatland to challenge the beast. The encounter draws the wrath of Grendel’s seductive mother (Angelina Jolie), and, 50 years later, Beowulf also fends off an assault by a dragon. Unrelated in the ancient epic, these first two battles are inexorably linked to the third in Gaiman and Avary’s script.
While taking some poetic license for these narrative purposes, this version captures the spirit and texture of Beowulf, and certainly the cinematography is at times stunning, from backtracking aerials that sweep across the landscape to furtive dodging among the nooks and crannies of the mead hall. Three-dimensional presentations in digital and Imax incorporate shots—a spear pokes out of the screen, a heel kicks the viewer in the face—that are novel and fun, if ultimately distracting.
But what connect the audience to the story, finally, are the performances. Here, they are often superb. In addition to the powerful and alluring Winstone, reliably solid Hopkins and siren Jolie, Robin Wright Penn as Queen Wealthow is a sympathetic witness, and John Malkovich as Hrothgar loyalist and Beowulf rival Unferth is amusingly sly. Glover, particularly, invests every fiber of his being into a creature wracked by emotional and physical pain every moment of its life.
Unfortunately, the animated rendering of these characters, which also mitigates the effect of some of the more gruesome violence, keeps the audience at an empathic remove. Next to spectacularly imagined and executed demons and dragons, the human beings move like mannequins, especially in action. Their eyes have lost the creepily dead look that was problematic in Polar Express, but the characters unnervingly don’t blink. One wants to be moved, possibly to tears, but isn’t.
Fallible heroes; unsanitized violence and sex (although the treatment of male nudity is irritatingly coy, especially compared to Jolie’s complete exposure); the juxtaposition of quiet, contemplative moments with action; an immersive sound design; the backdrop clash of paganism and Christianity—so much is right about Beowulf that one longs for the darker, grimier version that might have been in live action.
Cast: Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Robin Wright Penn, Brendan Gleeson, Crispin Glover, Alison Lohman and Angelina Jolie
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenwriters: Neil Gaiman & Roger Avary
Producers: Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis and Jack Rapke
Genre: Fantasy adventure
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sexual material and nudity
Running time: 114 min.
Release date: November 16, 2007