In essence, Beowulf is porn for 13-year-olds, as it caters to two of the most basic, primal fantasies of hetero adolescent males: slaying a dragon and bedding Angelina Jolie. Robert Zemeckis’s adaptation of the epic Old English poem is all rousing T&A and blood-splattering violence dressed up in the computer-generated “performance capture” animation style that the director first took out for a spin in 2004’s The Polar Express. Three years later, the technology remains something of a dud since its based-on-real-actors character models continue to boast the waxy complexions of Shrek’s humans and the dead-eye stares of department store mannequins, despite exhibiting improved physical fluidity. Zemeckis has presumably taken this moviemaking approach because it allows him the freedom to stage elaborate sword-and-magic spectacles, including Beowulf combating towering sea monsters and hitching a ride on a fire-breathing winged beast, as well as because it’s more conducive to the 3D effects that the film will utilize in roughly 1,000 theaters (both the standard and IMAX variety) during its theatrical release. But given the proceedings’ general juvenilia, it’s also just as likely that Zemeckis’s reasons for employing “perfcap” (as it’s unfortunately known) is simply that it was the only way to convince Jolie to appear nude on-screen.
Sexualized to the point of absurdity, this Beowulf is obsessed with heaving bosoms, vaginal caves, sultry demons stroking phallic swords that melt in their hands, and warriors fighting monsters in the buff, this last example composed in such a way that threats to the penis are plentiful but images of the member are always carefully obscured, Austin Powers-style. What this says about the film’s target audience is clear: boobs and violence are cool, shots of the male crotch are not. Zemeckis clearly understands what his viewers crave, and at least during the two centerpiece action sequences—Beowulf’s (Ray Winstone) fight with the shrieking, body-turned-inside-out Grendel (Crispin Glover), and his tussle with an enormous dragon—the virtuoso animation is impressive enough to almost make the rest of the surrounding childishness tolerable. Almost. Yet while screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary go to great lengths to modernize their tale—as well as create a new narrative bridge between the poem’s first and second segments, thereby resulting in a more unified thematic through-line—their depiction of legendary warrior Beowulf’s pride and greed, and the consequent doom it begets, is consistently marginalized by the director’s predominant focus on pixilated wizardry, and undercut by the awkward artificiality of said aesthetic.
Ditto for any trace of the source material’s paganism-versus-Christianity concerns, which are dutifully addressed—as well as mirrored in the story’s focus on fathers and sons—but only in passing on the way toward show-stopping battles. Beowulf arrives in Denmark in 507 AD to save king Hrothgar’s (Anthony Hopkins) realm from Grendel, only to find himself irresistibly tempted by Grendel’s serpentine mother (Jolie). It’s a classically heroic saga, but complete engagement with it is stymied by Zemeckis’s techniques. Hopkins, Jolie, Robin Wright Penn, John Malkovich, Alison Lohman, and Brendan Gleeson’s characters have the faces of their actor counterparts, but in such a creepy, flesh-dipped-in-wax kinda way that it’s hard not to be hopelessly distracted from the ongoing drama by their smooth features and strange comportment. The same holds true for Winstone’s Beowulf, a freakishly chiseled Master of the Universe who only barely looks like the portly thespian, and whose appearance still fails to strike a natural balance between cartoonishness and lifelike naturalness. In 3D, Beowulf’s animation has greater depth and vibrancy, even if it routinely succumbs to gimmicky shots of pouring blood and pointy objects. But ultimately, that’s all the film really is: a stunt aimed at showing off technology that, at least for now, is an inadequate substitute for the live-action and CG cinematic methods already possessed by filmmakers.