"Beowulf" Presents Beautiful Solutions to Non-Existent Problems
I must confess that I walked into Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf with several pre-conceptions and biases. On the one hand, I have never been too impressed with Zemeckis’ baby technology of motion-captured animation. The Polar Express plummeted straight down the “Uncanny Valley” with its creepy mannequins, and Monster House was solid entertainment with animation that was several years out of date. On the other hand, I am a Beowulf junkie, acquiring several translations since discovering it in high school. I am also a big fan of Neil Gaiman’s work, so knowing that he and Roger Avary had adapted the Old English epic poem definitely piqued my interest. I have to admit my expectations were probably slightly backwards, but I still can’t say that I’m terribly impressed with the final product.
As in the poem, the hero of the movie is the Beowulf the Geat, a brawny warrior who comes to the cursed mead hall of King Hrothgar to defeats the monster Grendel and Grendel’s equally monstrous mother. From there, the poem leaps forward to Beowulf’s old age, when he girds shield and sword one last time to battle a dragon. All three sequences are filmed with tense efficiency, although the tension proves to be slightly different each time and the last half of the movie is easily the most successful. The dragon himself is brought to stunning, marvelous life on screen and his extended battle with the title character has a powerfully kinetic dynamism that makes you feel every bone-crunching blow. This latter half of the film is also the portion that has the most dramatic heft, sharing the same rough-hewn sense of poetry that imbues the original text even as it phrases lines in more modern language.
A significant amount of material has been added to the tale to turn it into something more filmable, which should come as no surprise to anybody who’s read the poem. The major addition is a significant amount of connective tissue that binding all three plots together, and even connecting Beowulf to King Hrothgar. Detailing much more than this would make it too easy to guess the movie’s big plot twists, unfortunately. However, I can say that I think the new material manages to be coherent, well thought-out, and integrated very well into the existing story, but I still can’t say that I like it. In Gaiman’s Sandman comic book series, one character criticizes a production of King Lear, noting that the producers had given it a happy ending. His companion replies that it will not last, for “The Great Stories will always return to their original forms.” Beowulf possesses power of its own in the form that we have it, as people who have seen Benjamin Bagby’s Beowulf stage production will attest. While the new material is successful in turning Beowulf the poem into a workable film, I find most of it about as welcome as a happy ending to King Lear.
It also doesn’t help that the movie takes itself so seriously that it loses any sense of self-awareness of how ridiculous it is at times. An early battle sequence between Beowulf and several sea monsters was exciting, even if it felt too much like bits of Sony’s God of War video game, but when Beowulf bursts out of an eye and bellows his name, the reaction from the audience in my theater was a big laugh. The movie also sticks close to the poem in having Beowulf battle Grendel naked, but then engages in a ludicrous game of “hide the sausage” as a progression of well-placed obstructions ensures we won’t see any Geat meat. It’s so obvious that it takes your attention away from what’s happening on screen. I’m also not sure who thought it was a good idea to give Grendel’s mother stilleto-heeled feet, but it’s a glaring anachronism that is too campy to take seriously. There are simply too many moments in the movie when the audience will chuckle or laugh at moments that weren’t intended to be funny.
However, as with The Polar Express and Monster House, the digital rotoscoping technique is what has attracted the most attention to this movie. The animation techniques used here are quite impressive, being a quantum leap from the hideous puppets of The Polar Express and yielding far better results than I was expecting (or dreading). The most impressive characters are easily the triad of monsters that Beowulf must battle. The wonderful animation of the dragon goes a long way toward keeping the third act interesting, and the grotesque and misshapen Grendel is a horror in motion, standing in powerful counterpoint to the voluptuous glamour of his mother. However, it is clear that Zemeckis spent the most time ensuring that Beowulf himself was convincing, and he is indeed marvelous to watch in action. The motion-capture animation takes the very talented but slightly rotund Ray Winstone and brings him convincingly to life as the brawny and hypermasculine Beowulf. I had walked in expecting a repeat of the earlier two movies, and was pleasantly surprised at the results. This is the first time that the technique has seemed like a viable substitution for more traditional animated formats.
Unfortunately, simply because the technology has improved does not mean that it is successful. Beowulf’s character modeling and animation is the same high-quality throughout the movie, but the same cannot be said of many of the other characters. In fact, many of them don’t seem especially improved over The Polar Express. It seems especially cruel to take an actress as lovely and talented as Robin Wright Penn and bury her performance in a model that can’t seem to make any facial expressions. Her face should be beautiful, but it is too plastic, artificial, and immobile to generate any kind of emotional connection. It was the eyes in The Polar Express that drew most of the criticism, looking soulless and creepy despite the illusion of life. In Beowulf, they are much improved, but they are still unconvincing more often than not. The problem seems to be that characters’ eyes often seem focused on a fixed point far off in the distance regardless of what they should be looking at. No matter where a real person is facing, you can tell what he is focused on rather quickly. Traditional animation can use a variety of tricks to simulate the same effect. The animators of Beowulf weren’t able to crack this problem very often; only Beowulf can consistently seem like he’s really looking at something. It took far too long to decide whether John Malkovich’s Unferth character was supposed to be blind, and too many other characters don’t seem able to focus on people right in front of them.
Getting characters to hold on to things convincingly is also something that seems to have escaped Zemeckis’ computer crew. The mead horn of Hrothgar is beautifully rendered, but the cup always seems to be floating in Beowulf’s hand rather than being solidly in his grasp. The same thing happens to different degrees with swords and other characters, and viciously wrecks a scene late in the movie when two characters are supposed to kiss. It’s hard enough to animate a kiss well in hand-drawn or CGI animation, but the fact that neither character seems to be touching the other robs the scene of any impact it might have had. Similarly, the cryptic ending scene might have been successful with live-action actors, but placing the animated models between the viewer and the performer only makes the ending seem as though the production simply ran out of money and had to stop before it was finished.
Pixar makes movies that quickly make you forget that you’re watching computer animation. For a variety of reasons, Beowulf reminds you of how it was made every step of the way, which only succeeds in ripping the audience out of the experience. Too often, the movie breaks its own spell of suspension of disbelief. The impressive visual marvels that can make you a believer in the technique are almost always soon brought crashing down again by truly ugly technical flaws.
The worst part about Beowulf is that it is clear that a tremendous amount of time, money, and energy was spent solving problems, even though all of these problems have been long resolved in live-action or animated filmmaking. Beowulf doesn’t manage to succeed at exploiting the strengths of either medium, but still suffers from many of their flaws. It’s true that a motion-captured performance can place an actor in a role that that is physically impossible, but traditional hand-drawn animation has been able to do the same thing for nearly a century. And yet, when a model looks exactly like Angelina Jolie on screen, one must ask why they should bother with the animation in the first place, since it only seems to bury the real performance. There is far more life in the human caricatures of Pixar’s The Incredibles or DreamWorks’ Over the Hedge than most of the “realistic” characters here. For that matter, some commercials for newer PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 video games seem more convincing than the final product of Beowulf.
Given enough time and money, the technical problems in Beowulf can be solved, but one may wonder whether that time and money wouldn’t be better spent somewhere else. Despite its trappings, Beowulf is still an extended technology demonstration and needs more work before it can really create a good movie. In the end, a fully motion-captured animated film still seems like a solution in search of a problem.