Review: Beowulf Brilliant Due to CG Animation

Zemeckis has taken a three-ring circus approach to Beowulf and runs through the show at such a rapid, roaring, pace that it's difficult to stop and analyze any one element of the production. Always the master craftsman, Zemeckis seems to be having a rocking good time with this one and it's very infectious. This is the Zemeckis of Used Cars, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and even Death Becomes Her. This is Zemeckis having fun with a bold character shaking the pillars of heaven, and the screenwriting team of Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman have written a script that allows him to tell one of the classic literary tales all the while keeping a very broad smile on his face.

The animation at play in Beowulf is staggering in its depth and realization. The opening sequence alone begs the question - how many layers upon layers of texturing went into the work? Similar to the infamous muddy side-panels of the yellow pizza delivery truck in Toy Story, the scope and quality of effects work on display here is nearly inhuman.

The character animation for Beowulf, that of hyper real CGI, unfortunately taunts and is sometimes bit hard by the "Uncanny Valley Theory" of animation. With the exception of Angelina Jolie, Brendan Gleeson, and possibly Crispin Hellion Glover (though as Grendel, I can't be sure), every other character brought out the possibility of a sharp double take because of the animation, or simply because of the look of the characters' dark eyes. Along with the striking animation, through which Zemeckis has always shown great prowess, is the direction of the voice actors. However he pulls it off, Zemeckis found brilliance in the voice of Ray Winstone. His voice is one full table leg of the entirety of the film. Winstone growls and rumbles through the film, giving life and energy to the heroic character of Beowulf. If only that voice had a fulcrum big enough, it could move the world.

The effects work of the film, the CG character animation and voice work, that's where the magic is supposed to begin and carried into the stratosphere by the newly christened Digital/IMAX 3D, or so-called Real3D.

Did it pay off? Is 3D the future of cinema or just another over-hyped gimmick bent on sucking an extra $4 out of your wallet?

I've now learned there appears to be two distinct ways of viewing the film, either Digital 3D or IMAX 3D. The screening that I attended was in a mall theater that presented it in Digital 3D. How much of a difference this makes in the viewing, I cannot say.

The clarity and depth of image from the opening production company title plates were eye popping and an indication this was a very unique experience. Moving into the first set piece, the Mead Hall Celebration, a few frays in the perfection quickly became apparent. Throughout the Mead Hall Celebration, the camera moved about the partygoers, panning about in every direction possible. With left and right pans, the layers of depth and imagery quickly blurred, eliminating any ability to follow the camera's movement. I would be surprised if this were intentional, and in no other aspect of the film did the images bleed together in such a way.

I also noticed that, whether the foreground elements were intended as the focal point, my eye was pulled in that direction. I found myself wandering about the screen, involuntarily focusing on blurry foreground and background images. The beach sequences alone were an interesting struggle for the 3D technology. With the camera set low to the ground, similar to a multi-layered pop-up book, the rocks and sand of the ground could be seen to have a ribbon-like effect where I could count each phase of depth as the ground faded further into the background.

On a geekgasm note, the final action sequence, which takes place across a Danish planked bridge, lets loose with a full volley of what we may have in store for us, not only with 3D tech, but also with the ability of CGI avatars (if that's the right word) and the ability to drive the camera inside a digital landscape - much like a winged, four wheel drive Mustang Fastback with a jet engine strapped to its trunk.

I've read other reviews from people who have seen the film in IMAX 3D and they show no indication of having issues similar to those I experienced with the Digital 3D showing. Was the theater too small? Is there really a distinct difference between Digital and IMAX? Does 3D demand you sit up close and centered (I sat far back)? Is the 3D experience fragile enough to be rattled by these inconsistencies? At this point it's unclear, but I could sense a different film inside the film I experienced and want to know whether I saw a second-class rendition of an uptown production.

As it stands, Zemeckis and team put together a striking film that bodes well for the future of cinema, frayed edges and all. But, and it's a big but, if there is a noticeable difference in viewing a 3D film in IMAX as compared to Digital 3D at your local cineplex, then what I witnessed may not be ready for prime time. Would my parents, my friends, my co-workers, sit through Fantastic Four part 7 in 3D? Will it be an event for them? Will they be exhilarated by the prospect of sitting in a mall theater and working to follow the point of interest? There's a steep learning curve here and Zemeckis has set the bar high.