In the motion picture industry it seems that technological improvements never cease. Sometimes they lead to amazing and wonderful things (the original Star Wars) and sometimes they don't (Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace).
A few years ago Robert Zemeckis directed the motion capture animated film The Polar Express. It looked… different. At moments it appeared amazing, but there was an almost inhuman look to the characters that was disturbing. Just released to DVD is Zemeckis's next foray into the world of motion capture motion pictures, Beowulf. This new movie has a much improved look to it, and while not all the characters always look quite alive, it is still a spectacular visual experience.
Based on the old English epic poem, the movie follows the hero Beowulf (Ray Winstone) as he battles Grendel (Crispin Glover), Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie), a dragon, and his own internal conflicts. The main star of the film, however, is not any of the characters, but the animation itself. It is a film where style trumps substance.
The film looks truly outstanding, and a quick glance at what is taking place in some scenes might actually lead one to believe that they are watching a live action film, not an animated one. Extended viewing, of course shows this to not be the case, particularly with some of the impossible tracking camera shots, the look of Grendel, and the huge, swooping Dragon.
The basic story has the hero, Beowulf (Ray Winstone), appear at the Kingdom of Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) in order to slay the monster, Grendel. After accomplishing this task, Beowulf is asked to set about killing Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie). He's not quite as successful here as with Grendel, and instead falls prey to Grendel's mother's seduction, for which he is rewarded Hrothgar's kingdom but loses his will to live and sense of self-worth.
While more often than not visually impressive, the film's main drawback is that in many scenes it plays out in an overly juvenile fashion. In particular, the scene in which Beowulf fights Grendel features Beowulf doing so in the nude. While that may be perfectly fine, the ways in which the movie hides Beowulf's genitalia is reminiscent of the nude scene in Austin Powers and many similar films. After the umpteenth candle or spear or sword or hand that just happens to appear over his crotch, one gets the feeling that it was done more for the laugh than to preserve the PG-13 rating. Surely a few shots of Beowulf from the waist up could have been inserted instead of a carefully placed sword.
When released theatrically, the film was available in both a 2-D and a 3-D format. There are numerous disconcerting moments watching the film on DVD in 2-D where it is quite clear that the shot only exists in order to stick out at the audience; the framing and placement for a 2-D film is abysmal.
The DVD release features the standard and all too-predictable assortment of extras, from deleted scenes to making of-documentaries. They are nominally interesting for the science and technology that went into the picture, but there is nothing present that is truly above and beyond.
Though foolish and over-the-top at moments, this filmic version of Beowulf is still an enjoyable ride with a great cast doing the voices (Robin Wright Penn and John Malkovich are present in addition to those named above). Purists will, of course, complain about changes from the poem, but don't let that deter you. Though an animated feature, this is not for the kids and will almost surely entertain action-adventure craving adults.