The technology has vastly improved since the dead-eye days of Polar Express. While the kids in that movie creeped me out with their flat stares, the characters of Beowulf are so convincingly rendered that it’s possible to forget the technology and accept them all as flesh-and-blood actors. Which, of course, leads to the question: Why not just go forego using performance capture and go with real actors? Well, real actors did perform the roles however the budget would have been doubled or even tripled if Zemeckis hadn’t used what’s become his favorite technological toy in order to tell the story.
Like the ancient English poem that inspired it, Beowulf takes place in a Danish kingdom ruled by King Hrothgar (Sir Anthony Hopkins) and his pretty wife, Queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn). The kingdom has gathered together to celebrate the opening of their new mead hall and drinks are flowing freely. There’s loads of merrymaking, which means it’s a very rowdy group gathered together to party with the royalty.
Spared from the attack (there’s a history between the two that’s shortly revealed), King Hrothgar makes it known he’s willing to pay pretty much whatever it takes to rid his kingdom of Grendel. Beowulf (Ray Winstone) and a batch of his bravest fellow Geats (don’t you love that word?) show up to save the day, pledging to kill the beast in exchange for a handsome reward that includes a very special golden grail in the shape of a dragon. The one-of-a-kind treasure is connected to a deep, dark secret involving Grendel and his mother, a secret Beowulf becomes intimately involved in when he goes off to hunt down the monster terrorizing King Hrothgar’s lands and winds up spending time with the monster’s nearly naked and extremely sensual mom (Angelina Jolie).
Checking out Ray Winstone’s muscular physique in Beowulf is sure to make a batch of actors line up for the next performance capture project. Most actors have to go through rigorous training in order to take on a role like Beowulf, but Winstone simply had to act it out and let Zemeckis’ geniuses do the rest. Winstone’s Beowulf’s packing at least an 18’er and looks more handsome than most Disney princes. Now that’s not to say Winstone in real life isn’t a good-looking man. It’s simply to point out what can be accomplished/embellished using the performance capture technology. It’s still Winstone actually acting out the part of the heroic slayer of beasties; he’s just physically beefed up to fit the part.
Each character in the cast looks close enough to the actor who performed the role to easily recognize who is playing who, with the exception of Grendel. Crispin Glover donned the performance capture suit to play the sad creature and his face and body are completely altered to fit the role. He also converses in only Olde English so not even his voice will be recognizable to most audiences. Hopkins’ King Hrothgar is a distended and distorted copy of Hopkins, who definitely doesn’t carry around as many extra pounds as his character. Still, there’s no mistaking Hrothgar’s face and body language as anyone else’s other than Sir Hopkins.
The Bottom Line
For all the guts and gore, Beowulf does have its lighter moments. When Beowulf strips down to fight Grendel, a little twist that actually doesn’t make that much sense when you analyze it, items are strategically placed in front of his private parts a la Austin Powers. But unlike the Mike Myers cover-ups, the covering of Beowulf’s manhood continues over the course of many scenes. Surprisingly, screenwriters Gaiman and Avary threw in a good supply of jokes and bawdy humor, and a lot of Beowulf is played for laughs.
Beowulf must be seen in 3-D in a theater to truly get the most out of the experience. Spears fly right at the audience, blood pours over the screen, and Zemeckis’ Beowulf makes it feel as though you’ve donned armor and are engaged in battle right alongside the film’s hero. Limbs are ripped off, hearts pulled out, and although all of this could have been accomplished in a regular live-action movie, it’s seems infinitesimally more satisfying in this high tech format.
Beowulf is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sexual material and nudity.