Director Robert Zemeckis, whose 2003 "Polar Express" was the first IMAX 3-D feature, has taken that giant-screen technology to a spectacular new level in "Beowulf," a sometimes-brilliant visualization of the eighth-century English epic about heroes and monsters in ancient Denmark. Especially in a long chase-and-battle scene at the end of the movie — a dragon-borne roller-coaster ride through collapsing bridges, bottomless canyons and groin-slapping treetops — the imaginative possibilities of the three-dimensional cinematic environment have probably never before been so inventively explored.
The technological accomplishment of the movie may be reason enough to see it. There are some two-dimensional problems, though, mainly to do with the narrative, which often subsides into a sea of ye olde talk-talk-talk ("Something vexes you, my Wiglaf"), and some of the creature designs too. That dragon is surely an ancestor of the Norwegian Ridgeback we saw crawling around the rooftops of Hogwarts, no? And when you get right down to it, the rampaging Grendel — who looks like a huge pus blister pulled inside out — isn't that far evolved from the wonderful stop-motion monstrosities that Ray Harryhausen was cooking up back in the 1950s. And although the screenplay was written by comics auteur Neil Gaiman and "Pulp Fiction" scribe Roger Avary, some of the dialogue is more amusing than it really need be. When our hero, the hunky Swedish monster-killer Beowulf (Ray Winstone), arrives at the rowdy mead hall of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), we kind of expect him to say something zingier than "I am here to kill your monster." And when the king's beautiful young wife, Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn), welcomes Beowulf with a sultry look and the observation that "there have been many warriors who have come to drink my lord's mead," well, surely even a 13-year-old will intuit her meaning.
For a PG-13 movie, "Beowulf" also has a blithe predisposition for nudity. Beowulf himself, with his formidable abs and general bulging muscularity, would fit right into a WWE tag-team match; so when he battles the mead-hall-trashing Grendel in the buff, you have to think, hey, why not, he looks good. The same cannot be said, however, of Hopkins' toga-clad Hrothgar, whose undraped loins I hope never to glimpse again.
No one in the picture, however, is nuder than Angelina Jolie, whose form-gripping bodysuit is the merest token of tasteful restraint. With her long snaky tail and claw-like feet (which look for all the world like dominatrix-style high heels), she's a magnetic presence, and any puzzlement over her odd Transylvanian accent soon passes. Jolie plays Grendel's mother (her offspring clearly takes after his father, whose identity is one of the tale's kinkier secrets). She lures Beowulf to her watery cave to take vengeance for her dead son, but ... well, even kinkier things ensue, in a PG-13 way.
The movie's most considerable problem, for me at least, is the digital motion-capture technology that's been used to fabricate the characters, who all look as if they've been carved out of soap and stunned with Botox. As was also the case in "The Polar Express," the result is creepy and unconvincing, and you struggle to grasp its attraction for Zemeckis. Presumably, he's impressed by mo-cap's ability to so closely (if not completely) simulate the human form. But if human simulation is the goal, why not just stick with real humans in the first place?
Still, as off-putting as the half-artificial characters are, and as slow as the movie is in parts, the images still have what seems to be endless depth and detail, which gives the action scenes an unprecedented, gut-whomping power. Take "Beowulf" for what it is — it's certainly something to see.
("Beowulf" is a coproduction of Paramount Pictures. Paramount and MTV are both subsidiaries of Viacom.)
Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Redacted," also new in theaters this week.
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