Beowulf (U.S., 2007) * * 1/2
D: Robert Zemeckis
Remember when Robert Zemeckis was the gifted director of breezy fantasy comedies, such as Romancing the Stone, the Back to the Future trilogy, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? He has morphed, CG-style, into the strangely clinical director of motion-capture computer-animated films, beginning with The Polar Express (2004), and now extending to Beowulf, an adaptation of the ancient Anglo-Saxon poem. I miss the old Zemeckis. I think a lot of us do. Just prior to the release of The Polar Express, Newsweek published a massive story on the film, apparently convinced that it would not only be the hit of the season (it wasn't), but also the harbinger of a new era of digital animation. Zemeckis enthused about the possibilities provided by motion-capture. By sticking ping-pong balls on his actors, he could direct their performances in a studio and their body movements could be mapped onto a computer. Really, it's just a fancy form of rotoscoping, the old technique in which actors are painted over by animators; it was used in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and most prominently--and to great criticism--by Ralph Bakshi in his later films. Rotoscoping was used to great artistic effect in Richard Linklater's Waking Life (2001), proving that the form could still be a form of creative expression, rather than laziness--the most common criticism. No one seemed to think motion-capture was lazy when Zemeckis used it, or when Peter Jackson used it to map Andy Serkis' physical acting as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) and as the title character of King Kong (2005). That's because the goal of most Hollywood digital animation has become realism and versimilitude, not artistic expression. So, these days, on occasion you have the computer being used to create visually imaginative films such as A Scanner Darkly (2006) and The Incredibles (2004), but too much of the time studios are pushing their animated films to recreate the dimensionality, contours, and texture of reality. Mickey Mouse could flex his body like a rubber band, and when he whistled in "Steamboat Willie," his mouth virtually popped out of his head. Great expressiveness, but he didn't look much like a mouse, did he? In Brad Bird's Ratatouille (2007), Remy the rat can stand up and talk, and when he gets on all fours and scurries, he looks just like a real rat. Critics gave rave reviews to Ratatouille, and the film deserved them, but they also took care to note how realistic the rat fur looked. As though that had much to do with the excellent storytelling.
I went into Beowulf with a bleeding heart for 2-D and a deep cynicism toward Zemeckis' grand project to make a CG animated film as convincing as live action. If I was going to experience all that Beowulf had to offer, I figured I'd better see it in Dolby Digital 3-D, in our local Sundance Cinema, with the polarized 3-D glasses. So this was literal 3-D animation, with the spears and severed limbs popping right out of the screen. The 3-D was spectacular, but the animation itself maddeningly uneven. Let me be more clear: this is a far better film than The Polar Express in every respect, and especially on the level of technical craftsmanship, but the technology has come so close to recreating the illusion of realism that the final gap to be bridged--making a CG human character completely convincing--seems all the wider. We ain't there yet. Some of the characters--all of whose faces are modeled directly upon their actors'--are astonishingly realistic, in particular King Hrothgar, played by Anthony Hopkins, and, in her sexed-up grand entrance, Grendel's mother, played by Angelina Jolie. Others, such as Queen Wealthow (Robin Wright-Penn) and Unferth (John Malkovich), look plasticine and just plain creepy, which was the effect I got from all the passengers of The Polar Express. Although characters show a little more emotional expression than before, their faces remain stiff. These mannequins lack soul. But I'll give Zemeckis credit, because while watching Beowulf I found myself wondering, for the first time, about where this is headed. All this time I've been patiently waiting for cel animation to make its inevitable comeback (you can't replace the specific charm and expressions made available by line drawing and paint), but Beowulf has finally made me realize that the day is coming when a computer-generated simulacrum is indistinguishable from a human being. Sure, it might not have a soul, but a finer form of motion capture could conceivably pick up on all the actor's nuances. Zemeckis may be on a fool's errand, but the technology is beginning to catch up with his ambition, and ultimately it will improve to the point where animation can be invisible--already occurring for special-effects shots in live action films, but something of a technological holy grail if a CG creation can convincingly replicate a live actor for 90 minutes. Imagine the money you'd save on catering.
Zemeckis is aiming for the fences with Beowulf. The Polar Express, for all its realism, sought the look of the illustrations of Chris van Allsburg (realistic, but "storybook" nonetheless). Beowulf, by contrast, is improbably steeped in earthiness and overt eroticism. This isn't just a fantasy action film. It requires that the sweat-dampened skin seem tactile, that you can see the dirt under the fingernails and the slight blemishes on the cheek. Fur garments are dropped. Golden water streams across Angelina Jolie's voluptuous body. Tendons and flesh are lovingly slashed, with red viscera splattering across the screen (and at you, if you've got the glasses). You get the feeling Zemeckis wanted to graduate early, so he skipped a few classes and went straight to his thesis. When Beowulf strides through a dark cave lit only by the dim light of a magically-illuminated horn, the shadows hide the CG's limitations, and he is strikingly human. But when the feast/orgy is held in the film's opening sequence, you can pick out characters in the background who look like rubber dolls. You wouldn't be this picky if Zemeckis weren't asking you to be. Give him credit for making his thesis an R-rated film that, ironically, gets a PG-13 from the MPAA for the likely reason that it's animated--you know, just like Toy Story, except that Beowulf strips naked to fight Grendel. (But thank God that's not really Anthony Hopkins' naked behind sagging into the frame.)
Not only is the film gory and erotic, by turns, but the entire theme is aimed at adults. It's a story about disappointment, about not living up to the image that you present. It's a story about aging, and about taking responsibility for the children we've neglected. Credit the maturity of the screenplay to author Neil Gaiman and Pulp Fiction's co-writer, Roger Avary, who have collaborated on a script that faithfully recreates the context of the story's historical origins (this takes place in 10th-century Denmark) as well as its broad outline. But it also deepens and subverts the plot. Beowulf, the text, is the legend; Gaiman and Avary purport to be telling the real story. Yes, Beowulf severs Grendel's arm, but did he really slay him by cutting off his head? In this version, it's actually Grendel's mother who decapitates her already-dead son--now reduced, pathetically, to a disfigured, dried-up fetus--while hastily seducing Beowulf. Beowulf succumbs to her charms as well as her promises of wealth and power, a mistake already made by the king (who fathered Grendel). The king eventually commits suicide, but first declares Beowulf the heir, because he knows the warrior will be the new slave of Grendel's mother, and that the crown will be heavy indeed. But what has Beowulf now fathered? This is a very fine screenplay, and Gaiman and Avary can acquit themselves. It cleverly subverts the heroic myth, and risks losing the audience by portraying a Beowulf who's a braggart, a narcissist, and a bit of an oaf. Naturally, Grendel has siphoned some sympathetic qualities; while he does chew up the heads of his enemies, he's also reacting only because of his very sensitive ear, which pains him whenever the noise of the castle reaches his mountain cave. He's dispatched early, which is kind of a shame, because as the Frankenstein monster of the narrative, he's also potentially the story's heart. (The second son, Beowulf's--revealed later on--is not granted as much humanity, in the haste to deliver an exciting climax.) I find it fascinating that Grendel literally shrinks in size when he's wounded by Beowulf, as though these blows force a monstrous legend to be reduced to reality--and a humanity. The notion reinforces Gaiman and Avary's chief concern, which is uncovering the flawed being that lurks behind a legend. The exploration of this theme gives this adaptation an intelligently postmodern spin.
But how perverse that their screenplay requires so much sensuality. This should have been a live-action film, obviously. It probably would've been much cheaper to produce if it were--after all, there's only two sets to build, a castle and a cave. And this is probably not the film to resuscitate Bakshi-style adult animation, dripping with sex and violence, even if that were the intention of the collaborators. Beowulf is a film made in the awkward years of an evolving medium. Like a lot of CG animation, it will not age well. (The early Pixars already look very primitive by comparison to the newer ones.) Ultimately, this will be a footnote in the history of cinema, cited alongside The Polar Express as an example of animation's first steps to mimic reality, whether or not that direction proves misguided. That's a shame, because there's a decent movie buried somewhere underneath all these photorealistic ones and zeros.