'Beowulf': Proof Robert Zemeckis Hasn't Lost His Touch

More
beowulf-movie-poster_post.jpg

Paramount Pictures

Disney did its part to scare up visions of Christmas near future last week, releasing Robert Zemeckis's motion-capture adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol on home video (nearly a year after its 3-D theatrical release, an interim that remains common seemingly only for holiday titles). The film, which stars Jim Carrey as Ebenezer Scrooge, marks the director's second stab at creating a Christmas family-viewing perennial: 2004's The Polar Express adapted the contemporary-classic Chris Van Allsburg book into a thoroughly off-putting fantasia, matching naturalistic human movement with eerily inexpressive digital likenesses—and personifying yuletide spirit as an abundance of Tom Hanks avatars.

It's a little bit disconcerting that the man behind such adventurous (not to mention thoughtful) blockbuster fare as Back to the Future (1985) and Cast Away (2000) seems so determined to deck out his filmography with these state-of-the-art renderings of cookie-cutter holiday sentiment. But the performance-capture epic Zemeckis made in between The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol shows the filmmaker hasn't lost his edge.

His 2007 version of Beowulf—adapted from the Anglo-Saxon poem by fantasy scribe Neil Gaiman and filmmaker Roger Avary (The Rules of Attraction)—manages to simultaneously parody, broaden, and deepen the classroom staple. The film remains riotously grotesque—at least for a PG-13 film, in which all the rude bits must be strategically hidden by props or penumbras—but also exceptionally interesting.

Much of the movie takes place in the raucous Denmark mead hall where Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) presides, a place terrorized by Grendel (Crispin Glover), here imagined as an indomitable but cowering exposed-tissue gigantism case. Soon the strapping warrior Beowulf (the over-50 British character actor Ray Winstone, in an inspired bit of motion-capture-enabled casting), also portrayed here as an image-conscious serial exaggerator, shows up to defeat the creature. A mead-and-golden-treasure-filled celebration commences.

But in Gaiman and Avary's decades-spanning version of the tale, Grendel's mother, a water-demon temptress (Angelina Jolie) who proves irresistible to kings, turns out to be the real curse on the land. Additionally, the spindly court advisor Unferth (John Malkovich) officiates an early-days-of-Christianity subplot; the sixth-century setting serves as a juncture between the age of the epic and that of the Good Book, leading Beowulf to such ruminative last-act pronouncements as "The time of heroes is dead, Wiglaf; the Christ-God has killed it, leaving humankind with nothing but weeping martyrs, fear, and shame"—which, oddly but probably not coincidentally, sounds a lot like a watered-down late-Nietzsche aphorism.

Of course, Beowulf doesn't solve the problems inherent in Zemeckis's patented brand of almost-realistic digital animation—notably the glazed-over eyes and what appear to be occasional inconsistencies of scale, especially in interior scenes. The movie just happens to be involving enough at the levels of story and character that it never degenerates into pure spectacle. I'm not sure that there has been a film as intelligent and wildly go-for-broke as Beowulf that has also cost well upward of $100 million to produce, though when it comes to enormous-budget grand-scale visions I'm also partial to Michael Mann's eye-popping feature-length return to Miami Vice (2006).

Zemeckis, who turns 60 in May, is currently working on a 3-D remake of the Beatles cartoon Yellow Submarine, suggesting the director continues to be interested in adding new wrinkles to beloved classics. My own personal Zemeckis classics-rewrite wish list includes Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, with its Puritan funhouse vibe, and the 19th-century German novella The Rider on the White Horse, a dikemaster legend that also traffics in the supernatural and inclement weather. But of course that's all just wishful thinking. For now the unexpectedly moving and funny Beowulf will certainly suffice.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Benjamin Mercer has written on film for The Village Voice, The New York Sun, The L Magazine, and Reverse Shot. He is a copy editor at Bookforum. More

He has also copyedited for two New York dailies: The New York Sun and amNewYork.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

How have stories changed in the age of social media? The minds behind House of Cards, This American Life, and The Moth discuss.


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

How Will Climate Change Affect Cities?

Urban planners and environmentalists predict the future of city life.

Video

The Inner Life of a Drag Queen

A short documentary about cross-dressing, masculinity, identity, and performance

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

Just In