I first saw Beowulf in the theaters in 3D on an IMAX screen. It was hard to not be impressed with the technical achievements of the film as the advances in 3D technology gave the film a feeling of depth never before conveyed on a movie screen, particularly in outdoor shots of sweeping vistas. Now that Beowulf has arrived on DVD I've had the chance to watch it on a small screen in 2D without the "gee whiz" distraction of the 3D effects and I have been able to turn a critical eye towards its caliber as a film. And just as Angelina Jolie's Grendel's mother's beauty lies only skin deep, Beowulf is decidedly lacking in inner beauty.
Even without the 3D effects, it's impossible to review the film without mentioning its look. Motion-capture technology has been used to take the faces and movements of actors and place them in an entirely computer generated world. On the one hand it's impressive that such a thing is even possible in the first place. Through the magic of technology two actors inside a studio on a white soundstage can be transported by a computer to the bow of a Viking ship plowing through the North Sea during a gale force storm. And yet on the other, the technology still has a fair way to go before it can convince the viewer that he or she is watching an actual event rather than a computer recreation of one. Character movements are wooden and unnatural, particularly those of background characters. The fight scenes are more fluid and natural - well, natural if you can suspend your belief in the laws of physics and gravity for a while - as if the bulk of the effort in making the film went into its key action sequences. The rest of the time it can be difficult to lose yourself in the movie when your eyes keep catching the unnatural movements of people in the background or the odd and somewhat eerie gait of the horses in the film. Characters' skin and faces have an unnatural texture to them, and the degree of this can vary from one person to the next. Some characters come across as if they are living mannequins or wax figures and it does detract from your enjoyment of the film. You'll probably be left wishing that the film had been either fully animated or shot live action, because the melding of the two forms has resulted in something that comes across as a long-playing cutscene in a videogame more than as an actual movie.
As for the story itself, purists of the original epic poem will undoubtedly be aghast at what the film has done to the classic tale. Beowulf has been transformed from a larger than life heroic figure motivated by honor into a boastful, deceitful, and flawed tragic hero. Beowulf is less the hero of a saga and more of a modern professional athlete than anything else. It would be nice if Hollywood could resist the urge to continually turn epic characters into flawed or misunderstood reflections of themselves. Thank God Peter Jackson didn't decide to show Sauron as a misunderstood artistic child who was picked on by elven jocks.
And so we have the Hollywood version of Beowulf, who comes to the aid of the Thanes not out of honor but out of the promise of gold. We have Grendel's mother, who rather than a troll fiercer than Grendel is now a demonic temptress in the form of a high heel wearing Angeline Jolie. We have a sad queen locked in a loveless marriage and a drunken king who spawned the monster terrorizing his people. And in the end we have only the shell of an epic, stripped of its heart and turned into another shallow sword and sorcery movie more concerned with special effects than with real storytelling.
If you're looking for your standard escapist fare, the kind of movie that will eventually be relegated to Saturday afternoon matinees on local television stations, then Beowulf will deliver that to you. Just don't expect anything remotely on par with The Lord of the Rings trilogy. If you're at all interested in technology, the extras included on the DVD make it worth at least a rental. There is a feature on the motion capture sessions with the actors, and it is hard not to be impressed with the way actors in black jumpsuits covered in ping pong balls are transformed into hulking warriors out of the Dark Ages. The deleted scenes are well worth watching as well, but not to pick up on plot points that were left on the cutting room floor. The deleted scenes did not get the full computer treatment so you're given a glimpse at the intermediate stage of scenes between sound stage and full computer animation.