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Zemeckis, computers: 1; critic: 0

Ray Winstone is Beowulf (sort of).
  • Ray Winstone is Beowulf (sort of).
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenwriter: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Crispin Glover, Angelina Jolie
Release Date: 2007-11-21
Rated: PG-13
Genre: Adventure

“LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped, we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!”

Aw, yeah. That’s the stuff.

“He was the mightiest man of valor in that same day of this our life, stalwart and stately. A stout wave-walker he bade make ready.”

Do your thing, Anonymous. Preach it.

So, I’ll readily admit: When I first read that Robert Zemeckis was cooking up an all motion-capture imagining of everyone’s favorite seminal, consonant-laden, 1200-plus-year-old Anglo-Saxon epic poem, I was more, let’s say “curious” than “unassailably confident.” Not that I’ve any misgivings in the least about Zemeckis as a filmmaker — quite the contrary, in fact. He’s one of those directors (and really, I can’t think of many at all) who go quietly about the business of crafting consistently solid, periodically brilliant cinema with very few missteps along the way, and yet manage somehow to more or less slip most folks’ minds during discussions about Very Important Filmmakers. Honestly, go take yourself a stroll through his filmography, and count the films you didn’t enjoy or that you had a serious problem with. One, maybe? Now round up the ones that were good-to-uniquely-fantastic (neglect not the oft-forgot Death Becomes Her, if you please), and tell me our Bob isn’t at least somewhat akin to a Spielberg who works less frequently.

Alas, working in direct opposition to my decidedly pro-Zemeckis position in Beowulf’s case was my considerable and rather miserly anti-unchecked-use-of-CGI bias, which, while I cannot in good faith apologize for, has admittedly caused me to all but check out of more films than I can name. (Peter Jackson’s King Kong, inexplicably, was great, but the first two The Lord of the Rings bits turned me off so severely that I skipped the third.) Add to that the trailer’s pointed inclusion of the seemingly 300-esque bellow “I … AM … BEOWULF!” and brief glimpses of a Grendel that wasn’t quite what I’d imagined, and boy, was I prepared to hate the sword-and-sandals out of this movie.

Well, chalk up another one for Zemeckis and the computers.

Now, look. I’m not saying the Beowulf “thing” — what could less-than-graciously be called the High-End-Xbox-360 Look — isn’t a little strange at first. Sure, it is. And no, even with “mo-cap” — the Green-Ping-Pong-Balls Look, if you prefer — we still haven’t managed to get these anthropomorphic, er, Final Fantasy-bot-things to emote spontaneously like real humans. They’re still not warm enough; they still don’t seem to, I don’t know, blink enough or something; peripheral or less lovingly animated characters (in a crowd scene, here) still seem like really, really top-of-the-line Pirates of the Caribbean automata (the ride, not the flicks).

On the other hand, a few of the principal “actors” — Crispin Glover’s walking scab-candlestick Grendel (who’s almost as off-putting as those glassy-eyed, soulless little Midwich freaks from The Polar Express) and the Brendan Gleeson avatar, particularly — do achieve moments of astounding emotion. Further, the pesky “Why not just make a live-action film?” question is roundly answered by a flat-out jaw-dropping final battle scene, which features a stunningly rendered CG dragon that likely wouldn’t seem as real against photographed surroundings.

And yet, in the end, none of this are-they-or-aren’t-they business distracts from what is a genuinely thrilling, intelligent, well-written tale. Rock-star writers Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman have added a bold and truly ingenious twist to the man-versus-monster motif that may surprise purists, but offers a profoundly intriguing and rewarding interpretation of the story, and takes matters appreciably deeper than your average would-be epic. •


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