First and foremost a showcase for the latest developments in motion-capture and 3-D technology, Robert Zemeckis' take on the ancient tale in verse of men and monsters transforms real actors — including Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, Crispin Glover, John Malkovich and Robin Wright Penn — into waxy-looking, dead-eyed avatars that look as though they belong in a high-end video game.
Denmark, sixth century: Hedonistic King Hrothgar (Hopkins) has a monster problem: The powerful, misshapen Grendel (Glover) has declared war on Hrothgar's kingdom, brutally murdering and terrorizing his subjects. Enter brawny, boastful Beowulf (Winstone), who brings his loyal right-hand man Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson) as well as a band of warriors from far across the sea. Beowulf proceeds to make good on his promise to slay the beast, but he loses most of his company to the wrath of Grendel's mother (Jolie), a gilded water demon with a long, sinuous braid of hair that seems to have a writhing, sinister life of its own — and she makes an offer no mere man can refuse. While Beowulf and Grendel's oft-told tale would seem to define the term "spoiler-proof," it actually is possible to spoil screenwriters Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman's ingenious solution to the story's thorniest structural quirk: the rift between the first half and the second, which takes place decades later and pits the still-mighty Beowulf against a vindictive dragon. Suffice it to say that they found a structurally elegant way to pull the two halves together.
The trouble is that the film's look trumps all. Zack Snyder's adaptation of Frank Miller's 300 (2006), to which BEOWULF has often been compared, is a stunning fusion of live action and computer-generated images, simultaneously highly stylized and vividly rooted in flesh-and-blood physicality. Zemeckis' film is both kitsch and creepy: Beowulf is fantasy, but BEOWULF is a sheltered teen-boy fantasy, full of macho bluster, denatured violence and leaden double entendres. Limbs fly in a spatter of decorative cartoon gore, the fleshy Winstone gets a virtual trade-up to an anonymously buff Chippendale dancer's body (the better to vanquish Grendel in the nude and wow Hrothgar's comely queen) and the frontally naked "Angelina Jolie" is as smooth and desexed as "Grendel's Mother Barbie." And there's something faintly depressing about such pallidly antiseptic daydreams.
BEOWULF opened on 3,000-plus screens, of which more than 800 played the film's digital 3-D version; another 75 conventional 3-D prints played large-screen theaters. The digital 3-D version was produced by the Real D company (a single-projector system that uses glasses with polarized lenses; their first theatrical effort was 2005's CHICKEN LITTLE), and the effect of depth is strikingly good.
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