November 17, 2007
Beowulf is no monster, but animation fandom seems to be welcoming it as if it were Grendel itself.
Robert Zemeckis' latest feature foray into the world of motion-capture moviemaking comes correct, despite any aesthetic predispositions and prejudices. Professor Z and his uncanny CGI-Men have lost all of the "dead eyes", much of the plastic skin, and most of the lanky posturing that infested previous big-budget, Hollywood attempts at motion-captured semi realism (Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Polar Express, Monster House).
Viewed in Disney 3-D with the oversized, specialized glasses (they fit over my small glasses), the effect is mixed, but mostly positive. Rapid foreground movement tends to appear blurry, but slower scenes crackle and pop with amazing detail. This isn't some chintzy Viewmaster effect. While humans sometimes appear flat, most objects (from pebbles and surging waves) have infinite depth. Even conventional, low-angle shots suck you in, before galloping horses trample over your head. The experience deserves at least one shot from any jaded moviegoer.
Beyond Beowulf's technical achievements is a far rarer achievement for North American animated features: It's a well-crafted, animated drama. With screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary brandishing their fine ears and pens to complement Zemeckis' cinematic sense, they bring brains and soul to this ancient story. The drama is less clumsy than Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, and more coherent than either Paprika or Tekkonkinkreet. It also has sharper wit, meatier dialogue, and stronger performances than all of them.
The storytellers are earnest enough to tell the tale with genuine emotion, but generous enough to play to the back of the room. Gaiman and Avary respect grand pronouncements and bawdy interplay. Zemeckis respects playful camera work, dramatic pauses and silent exchanges. Someone on staff respects blood and buck-nakedness, so the PG-13 rating is bent with glee. Crafty craftsman that he is, Zemeckis ensures that impalings and other impolitic protrusions are artfully obscured. Grendel's brutal assaults in Act 1 are bathed in an otherworldly blue firelight that strobes just enough to blot out the more gruesome deaths. The camera hurtles through spears and arrows instead of the bodies they pierce. Some naughty bits are obscured by foreground objects. Others are obscured by gold trim and dark shadows.
Which leads me to mention that a functionally nude Angelina Jolie facsimile appears in the movie. She may not be a thick-lipped, thick-hipped Ralph Bakshi goddess (like Elenor from Wizards) but she'll do. To wit, Ray Winstone has a gruff, Russell Crowe alpha-maleness mojo going, but I don't think he'll make anyone forget about Gerard Butler's Leonidas from 300. Sorry, these supposedly sensual elements of the story aren't fantastically nebulous enough to be smokin'.
What the performers lack in physical hotness, they make up in emotional presence. Unlike Tom Hanks in Polar Express, the actors don't have to pantomime excessively to get the performance across. With surprising nuance, the best scenes feature tiny smirks, darting eyes, and pained brows. These are not the wax puppets that you see in most video games. (God of War certainly didn't have the patience to tell a story with this much deliberation and visual detail.) Without the brilliantly rendered facial contours, we might miss the visual subtleties of Robin Wright Penn's notable performance, for instance. When her aged queen converses with a young mistress, the subtext in her face could only be captured by the finest character animators. Even the hammier performances of Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich grow on you, leading to incisive interplay late in the film. Don't judge these animated figures based on the motion-captured aesthetic offenses committed by past films. Watch this film and make the distinction.
Think of Zemeckis as a student of the Fleischer school of mimetic action animation, having completed his prerequisite study in Rotscoping 202 and The Animated Short Films of Superman. He's the art major with a computer science concentration, so forgive his literalism and obsessive sense of static detail. If Disney can develop a better multiplane camera to emulate live-action dollies and zooms, then surely the Z-man shouldn't be garroted for employing his own form of hybridization.
Silicon Valley has not yet crossed over into the Uncanny Valley, but it's getting pretty darn close to the down slope with Beowulf.