30 11 2007

BeowulfNote: Beowulf is being screened in select venues in 3D; this review is of the regular theatrical presentation.

Ever since 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Robert Zemeckis has increasingly relied on CGI technology in making films such as Death Becomes Her, Forrest Gump and Contact. But it was his animated adaptation of The Polar Express in 2004 where he pushed so-called “motion-capture” technology to its limits, and now, three years later, he revisits it with Beowulf.

The film is, of course, based on the epic poem of the same name, but screenwriters Neil Gaiman (MirrorMask) and Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction, The Rules of Attraction) have crafted a modernised, coherent narrative out of the ancient source text. Here they assume an unreliable narrator in the source, and so Beowulf, originally a singularly heroic character, becomes a flawed man instead. Whether this works for or against the film is open to debate, but it’s hard not to admire the attempt to craft a thematically-unified three-act screenplay out of a poem that was never designed for such.

What deserves greater discussion, however, is the motion-capture technology itself. In The Polar Express, we had a situation that seemed like the worst of both worlds: too artificial to be fully convincing yet too lifelike to think of it as pure animation — it was as if Tom Hanks’ zombie twin had started dancing in Toontown. In Beowulf, things are greatly improved, but it often looks like a videogame cutscene rather than a bona fide film. (This technique would be perfect for a Warcraft film, perhaps.)
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