Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled Beowulf

If a deep-sea fish and a flayed, smashed, gutted human corpse were somehow to produce a child together, it'd look like Grendel in Robert Zemeckis' new computer-animated film Beowulf. And if 300 and The Polar Express were to commit a similar unnatural act, their offspring would look exactly like this film. Zemeckis' follow-up to Polar Express once again uses performance-capture technology to create animated characters that look and move sort of like real actors, but with just enough creepy stiffness to be an endless distraction. The film strives for mythological depth and epic breadth, but it's hard to get below the flat, shallow gloss over every surface.


Ray Winstone stars as the voice and scanned-in facial image of the eponymous hero, a chest-thumping braggart who's earned his mighty reputation, but still steadily inflates it with bold-faced lies. When the monstrous Grendel (Crispin Glover, speaking jarring Old English) arrives at the mead-hall of king Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and kills virtually everyone in sight, Hrothgar sends for a hero to help. He gets Beowulf, who struts, boasts, sneers down obvious sleazy bad guy Unferth (John Malkovich), and successfully takes on the monster, angering its murderous mother, all generally in accordance with the original epic poem. But screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary take the story in a new direction with Beowulf's avenging visit to Grendel's mom (Angelina Jolie, wearing nothing but a painted-on golden glow), who's more interested in subverting heroes with sex than engaging them in battle.

The story engages the idea of heroism and mythmaking in sharp, resonant ways, but all the intelligent writing in the world can't make headway against the film's loud, show-offy dynamic and irritating animation. The mapping of real people's faces onto computer-generated characters works so well that in close-up, when nothing's moving, they look normal, but as soon as they move or speak, they become freakish plastic puppets. And Zemeckis' ridiculously kinetic, hyperactive camera keeps managing to catch angles where they don't look human at all. Then there's the odd, off-putting sense of humor. In the poem, Beowulf removes his armor to fight Grendel on equal footing; here, he strips stark naked, resulting in an unfortunately comic Austin Powers-like sequence that loses the tension of combat amid the constant question of what random object will obscure Beowulf's genitals next. Ten years from now, Beowulf may look like the groundbreaking project that helped kill live-action movies, but for the moment, its uncomfortable jokes and fakey rendering of life leave it wedged firmly in the uncanny valley. (Insert your own joke about Jolie's astonishing animated anatomy here.)

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