Handsome and Grendel

I don’t know why I should feel guilty ogling a pixelated Angelina Jolie in the new computer-animated film “Beowulf,” as most of the young Hollywood starlets have just as many fake body parts.

There Jolie stood (well, a reasonable facsimile thereof), morphing from beast to babe – her scaly, shiny skin replaced with more lifelike flesh – and I anxiously awaited it to plunge below the neckline.

It’s easy to get that caught up in “Beowulf,” for at times you honestly forget you are watching a toon, as the smallest details have been recreated with this latest incarnation of “motion capture” technology – from every crease in Jolie’s perfectly puffy lips to the last remaining follicles on Sir Anthony Hopkins’ noggin.

It’s also easy to get excited by the wonder of technology on display, as this is the future of cinema (even if it will look quaint in a decade from now, considering the rapid advancements being made). Erasing the lines of reality and fantasy, emboldening the director to create scenes and “camera shots” that were heretofore impossible.

Even though “Beowulf” is an almost-there affair, it deserves credit for being more than just a smattering of pretty pictures created by keyboard-pounding nerds. And, if nothing else, it’s certainly going to spice up those high school English classes when it comes time to cover the old epic mainstay.

There are many moments to marvel – an opening shot providing a rat’s eye view of action inside King Hrothgar’s mead hall before we are snatched up by a bird of prey and treated to an aerial shot of the entire snow-capped kingdom; another delicious sequence takes place in the same hall, but features a battle between a buck-naked Beowulf and a slobbering Grendel in which candlesticks, helmets and other objects are strategically framed (a la “Austin Powers”) to cover up the great Dane’s naughty bits.

The film’s true money shot is the climactic confrontation between ‘Wulfie and a fiery dragon that begins in a murky lair and proceeds down a mountain and into the sea.

Yet for all the technical wizardry on display, there are still moments when the animation takes on a video-game-like quality, in both the characters’ actions and expressions, that takes the viewers out of the action and into a “Shrek”-like fantasy lands.

In 2001, Columbia Pictures released a film with similar, photo-realistic animation called “Final Fantasy.” It initially sent Hollywood into a panic, claiming that the process would ultimately eliminate the use for actors, cameramen, stylists, etc. After its dismal box office, the company that created the film, Square Pictures, “retired” from the business that same year.

Director Robert Zemeckis has never been one to turn away from a technical challenge – he’s been nudging borders with his films dating back to “Back to the Future” in 1985, and has consistently tinkered with technology ever since (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Death Becomes Her,” and the similarly animated “The Polar Express”).

“Polar Express” came close to the realism that has been promised, but the Tom Hanks-rendered images still resembled the glossy, blank-eyed stare of some Madame Alexander nightmare and moved like an animated Stretch Armstrong action figure.

“Beowulf” blasts the boundaries with its lavish vistas, intricate detail and dizzying shots. There still is a rubbery residue at times which can jar viewers out of its story (loosely, but gamely, translated by animator Neil Gaiman and “Pulp Fiction” scribe Roger Avary). It’s much less frequent than in “Express,” but more finicky viewers will find themselves searching for the seams rather than becoming enveloped in the proceedings.

This is especially prominent in scenes with the tortured monster Grendel, who is not the glorious beast he’s been known as for centuries, but rather a soggy, scabby, slack-jawed muppet with an attitude.

It’s hard to critique the “acting,” but it can be said that all vocal talents are well-suited for their roles, from recognizable leads such as Jolie and Hopkins (as King Hrothgar), to Ray Winstone as Beowulf and Crispin Glover as Grendel.

For its faults, “Beowulf” remains a technical marvel that would surely earn higher praise if this reviewer benefited from witnessing it in one of the IMAX 3-D theaters in which it was released.

But no matter how many dimensions in which it is watched, “Beowulf”sexes up those Saxons and makes everything Old English new again.

~ by usesoapfilm on November 19, 2007.

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