Director Robert Zemeckis, who built his career making enjoyable films like “Back to the Future”, “Romancing the Stone” and “Forrest Gump”, has been exploring the realm of computer animated films recently. He has even gone so far as to develop new technology so he can more convincingly capture actors portraying the characters he then has animated. His first foray into this field was “The Polar Express” in which Tom Hanks played a number of characters and all of the children in the film looked like soulless zombies. In “Monster House”, the technology was used to better effect because the characters were highly stylized and looked like animated characters. They weren’t trying to be real, so we buy into the scenario more readily. Now with “Beowulf”, Zemeckis’ uses Ray Winston, Angelina Jolie, Robin Wright Penn, Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich to portray various characters in this completely computer generated universe. The characters look like the actors playing them, but they still move with the jerky movements common to video game characters and they still have that soulless zombie look in their eyes. My question is if you are going to go to the trouble to try to make Ray Winston look like Ray Winston (with the use of a body double), and Angelina Jolie look like Angelina Jolie, why not just use the actors in front of animated backgrounds, ala “Sin City” or “300”?
It’s strange that Zemeckis, who began his career making such fun and enjoyable films, starring personable actors (Tom Hanks, Michael J. Fox, Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner) now chooses to make completely lifeless films using a technology replacing the very likable actors with pale facsimiles of themselves (Tom Hanks, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn).
The story begins with a party in a remote Danish kingdom. King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and his wife, Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn) are having a celebration, but the king has become very inebriated and seems to disgust his younger wife. Their merriment causes the great beast Grendel (Crispin Glover) to awake, his head pounding with the noise, a noise he must stop, so he attacks the village, killing many. Distraught, Hrothgar hopes for a miracle and promises his kingdom to whoever can slay Grendel. Enter Beowulf (Ray Winston and a body double). Beowulf treks to Grendel’s lair and slays him, but now he has to deal with Grendel’s mother, a dangerous beast who takes the form of a beautiful woman (Angelina Jolie) who vows revenge. She tempts Beowulf and they eventually battle. When Beowulf returns, Hrothgar makes him king, as promised, and gives him Wealthow as his wife. Then Beowulf must deal with other forces.
Much like “Sin City” and “300”, the use of computer animation is a really great method of recreating a land and time long ago. In this case, the filmmakers use this technology to create the remote, snowy Danish vistas of yesteryear. And the work is interesting to look at. Remote huts and community buildings look interesting and add some interest to the story. These same sets would cost a fortune to recreate and would probably not look as authentic as they do in this film, so creating them with CGI is a necessity.
But because much of this film takes place in caves, or on snowy plains, the film retains a ‘cartoony’ look, resembling a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Really, some of the scenes in the film look like the background keeps repeating. This is not a good thing when a film is trying to be hyper-realistic.
Zemeckis has spent a lot of time developing technology to make this type of filmmaking more realistic. Basically, they put an actor in a suit covered with tiny transmitters. They film the actor acting out a scene. They import the scene into a computer and the computer tracks these tiny emitters as the actor moves. This allows the animator to add clothes, costumes, backgrounds, while the movement of the character remains ‘natural’. Zemeckis has developed this technology to add facial expressions to the mix, something they were previously only able to do in limited doses. Unfortunately, it didn’t work very well in “Polar Express”, making all the children resemble zombies. In “Monster House”, it was better. In “Beowulf”, the facial expressions are a bit blank again. The characters certainly look like the actors they are playing, but the expressions seem a little off, the eyes a little vacant. I really think this has to do with the fact these are real actors playing the characters. The technology seemed to work in “Monster House”, but that was because the characters were less realistic and cartoonier. In the two films where the characters are supposed to be more realistic, they appear more like avatars in a video game. Speaking of avatars, James Cameron is reportedly developing his own technology for his next film, “Avatar”, due in 2009.
Equally important are the character’s body movements. In “Beowulf”, the characters seem to move stiffly and even in a jittery fashion at some points. It just isn’t convincing and makes everything seem more like a videogame. When I first saw the trailer, I thought it was an ad for a Wii game.
Okay, let’s put these things aside for a moment and address the story. The main conflict, the battle between Anjelina Jolie’s character and Ray Winstone’s happens in the second act. This leaves a lot of time, too much time, for the story to meander and try to paint a picture of Beowulf and a younger woman (Allison Lohman) having an affair, while Wealthow (Penn) looks on. Yawn. Then, the filmmakers seem to realize they need to have a climatic ending and throw in another battle. At this point, it just makes the film seem long. Too long.
The 3-D technology has improved greatly. Disney is doing some interesting things with this technology and has made a new film “Meet the Robinsons” and re-released “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas” with this technology. These new films look like they are truly 3-D, gone are the lines and shadows we used to have when this technology was first introduced in the mid 50s. There was a trailer for the first live-action 3-D film using this technology, next summers “Journey to the Center of the Earth” starring Brendan Fraser. It looks like an interesting idea, but the clips they showed in the trailer make the actors look flat as they traverse a 3-D landscape, much like the characters in Zemeckis’ “Polar Express” and “Beowulf”.
Film wouldn’t be where it is today without filmmakers experimenting and creating things like Panavision, THX, Roadshow presentations, 3-D and CGI to enhance their own films. Because of these advancements, we have had the pleasure of watching new films that could one day be considered classics, films like “Sin City”, “300” and “Batman Begins”. Without the development of the water creature in “The Abyss”, we would never have had the amazing special effects used to create the Terminator in “Terminator 2.” In a way, the work of Ray Harryhausen on films like “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” led to the amazing special effects used in “The Matrix”. It seems difficult at this point to imagine, but perhaps, perhaps, one day the work Zemeckis is currently putting into these films and this technology may one day lead to some enjoyable, memorable films.
But right now, we have “Beowulf”, which is anything but. Enjoyable and memorable that is.