Beowulf turned out to be quite a surprise, albeit not a very good one.
I didn’t think it was going to be animated to the extent it was. I thought it would be like 300 or Sin City, heavily stylised live-action with lots of CG overlaid. But alas, Robert Zemekis is no Robert Rodriguez, and is still hung up on his Polar Express experiments, so Beowulf takes the interesting step of having real actors, motion-capturing them, faithfully recreating faces and expressions, but sticking them into computer animation. The final effect is like human faces pasted onto the Pillsbury Dough Boy, and the opening scenes in particular, with lots of sub-Shrek crowd scenes, look terrible. Scenes with horses make the intro to the original Tekken look state-of-the-art, and everything still looks moulded out of plastic, be it skin, fabric or eyes. Aesthetically, a total failure. They may have made Ray Winstone look young and muscular and Brendan Gleeson look like Gimli, but it really wasn’t worth it for the floating, swollen, immune-to-momentum mannequins we had to watch, even in glorious 3D – and this really isn’t a film to see without the 3D effects, because they provide what little interest there is in the visual spectacle.
The story is a typical Gaiman reimagining, the kind of thing that looks really clever in a single comic issue if you’re familiar with the source material, because a flaw is shoe-horned into Beowulf’s character so that there can be clever-clever talk of unreliable narrators. To be fair, though, for a movie to work, some way to tie the dragon into the main storyline was needed, and that was really quite a seamless way to integrate it. Despite this advantage, the whole fight against the dragon was so Saturday morning that it became intensely dull.
And this is really the problem with the film. The two- or three-part narrative of the poem (ah, much scholarly debate about which it is) all gets neatly tied together, in a very modern femme fatale sort of a way, and there’s the macho revivalism of 300 at play, but this film fails where 300 succeeded because it just isn’t any fun. The fights are plastic and false, Beowulf isn’t interesting as a man or hilariously excessive as a warrior (as is Zack Snyder’s Leonidas), the conclusion is gobsmackingly cheesy and the CG falls way short of what it needs to for this film to be in any way watchable in ten years’ time. Oh, and ‘hiding the penis’ gags may work in Austin Powers or The Simpsons, but they really don’t belong here.
Kudos to Gaiman and collaborator Roger Avery for their little Macbethian revisionist unification of the tale and their attempt to humanise an idealised hero, but as a film, this really did fall flat.