by Matt Wedge
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Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of the epic poem Beowulf is not short on style and spectacular sights, but it does skimp on giving most of its characters anything more than a strictly one-dimensional attitude. This is, of course, an interesting irony when you consider the trumpeted 3D presentation that the film is receiving on many of the screens it’s playing.
Set in sixth century Denmark, the story follows Beowulf, a legendary hero who has come to the hall of King Hrothgar to rid his kingdom of the monstrous beast, Grendel. When he manages to dispose of the creature in short order, it seems that all shall live happily ever after. Of course, for those of you familiar with the poem, Beowulf’s troubles are just beginning.
Zemeckis has several tricks up his sleeve to keep the story fresh for everyone who had to read the poem in high school. While the first act doesn’t stray far from the source material, the proceedings take several new plot twists for the rest of the film. While most of these changes actually serve to help the story become more self-contained, they also add a new underlying theme of abandonment and revenge that gives the film a considerably darker tone than the poem ever achieved.
Although the story has been streamlined a bit and given more depth, the same cannot be said for the characters. Aside from Beowulf, none of the characters are given anything to deepen the audience’s interest. Beowulf is shown to be both brave and weak-willed, eventually causing as many problems as he solves. His head hangs heavy with the guilt of what his greed and thirst for glory has cost him and his people. The rest of the characters are reduced to stock roles: Wiglaf—the loyal friend, Wealthow—the long-suffering wife, Unferth—the coward. It’s as though the supporting characters were given the briefest of personalities as an afterthought and they pale in the presence of the fairly well rounded Beowulf.
While the film may suffer from weak characterization, the visuals are always dynamic and occasionally grotesque. Using the motion-capture technology that served him so well on The Polar Express, Zemeckis is given a tool that is only limited in its abilities by his imagination (of which he has a good deal). The men and women are etched in a realistic manner, warts and all. The creatures each have a distinct look all their own. Grendel is a pathetic, deformed specimen that is as pitiable as he is frightening. Grendel’s mother is a sleek, almost metallic humanoid with a long, serpentine tail. As portrayed by Angelina Jolie (Alexander), she is a seductive being, using the weaknesses of men to get what she wants. The dragon is a wondrous sight and is really the highlight of the film. Fierce and scary, with a powerful body and scales like sharpened gravel, it is the best movie monster in recent memory.
It’s hard to judge the performance of the cast when talking about a motion-capture film. It’s nearly impossible to tell where the actors end and the technology begins, but the vocal work is some of the finest in any animated film of the last twenty years. As Beowulf, Ray Winstone (The Departed) is suitably blustery and aggressive. Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs) hams it up to Shakespearean levels as King Hrothgar. Brendan Gleeson (28 Days Later…), John Malkovich (Shadow of the Vampire) and Crispin Glover (Back to the Future) all provide solid work in their supporting turns. Only Robin Wright Penn (Forrest Gump) hits a false note with an accent that wanders between non-descript British and flat American.
Despite the impressive technology and the improvements that the script by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary have made to the story, the lack of any supporting characters to care about keeps this from reaching the epic status that the filmmakers were so obviously shooting for. There is a level of wonder on hand, but it never stays with the viewer past the theater lobby. In the end, Zemeckis has delivered a solidly made popcorn movie. Normally that’s not a problem, but quite frankly, audiences have come to expect a little more from him.
One brief aside about the 3D technology used for the film. For the most part, it’s light years better than the 3D attempts we’ve seen in the past. Still, I did notice some blurring when objects were too far into the foreground and after about an hour, I started to develop a headache. I don’t know for sure that it was the glasses that caused this, but I overheard several people complaining about the same thing while leaving the theater. Most of the effects and impressive visuals didn’t rely on the 3D for their power, so I have to say the extra two dollars for the 3D experience isn’t really worth it. Save your money and catch it in a regular theater, you won’t be missing out on that much.
Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic in Chicago.
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