Beowulf not a classic, but a 3-D marvel

by Glen Baity

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a proper 3-D movie. Having just experienced all three dimensions of Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf, I’m happy to report that the technology has come a long way from what I remember (and the glasses, in case you were worried, are far more comfortable, though only slightly more fashionable).

Let’s be clear right off – this review won’t be strictly reliable if you’re planning to see the 2-D version of Beowulf (but really, given the choice, why on earth would you?). Honestly, so much of my enjoyment of this film came from the eye-popping visuals that I find it particularly hard to speak to the film’s overall quality. All I know is that it’s a thoroughly entertaining picture in 3-D, and you’d do well to see it that way.

Obviously, however, I’m duty-bound to talk about the more mundane aspects of the film, so let’s dispense with those first for the people who fell asleep in 12th-grade World Lit. Beowulf is based on the seminal epic poem of the same name, which tells the story of a hero (chest-thumping Ray Winstone) who comes to Denmark in the 6th century to slay Grendel (Crispin Glover), a giant beast who keeps crashing Danish King Hrothgar’s (Anthony Hopkins) mead parties. After killing Grendel, Beowulf must dispense with the monster’s mother (Angelina Jolie). In the story, he then leaves Denmark and returns home to eventually become king of the Geats, which is where the film begins its significant departure from the original text.

To say more would spoil the plot of the actual film, which is enlivened by some of the liberties screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary take with the thousand-year-old tale. I wasn’t a classics major, and I haven’t read Beowulf in a number of years, so while certain changes (Beowulf in the film eventually rises to Denmark’s throne, for one) might drive scholars nuts, they didn’t bother me. If anything, the changes centralize the plot and give the story a more modern construction. Just don’t watch the movie instead of reading the text, kids. You’ll fail the test.

But the story isn’t the only resurrected classic: Beowulf is at the head of a new push to bring 3-D movies back into the mainstream (you’ll be seeing more and more of them in the next few years). That could be good or bad, but if Beowulf is any indication, the technology stands to really enhance the right picture. I realize 3-D, as we know it, is little more than an extra-flashy gimmick, that it usually adds nothing to the story, and that as a film critic I should’ve trained myself to look past it.

I’m also not allergic to a good time, and I haven’t completely jettisoned my sense of wonder. On these last two points, Beowulf wins out. Whether it’s a clutch of arrows flying straight at you or a horse galloping from the middle of the audience into the thick of the action, the film scores major points from the anticipation of what might be next to pop off of the screen.

It’s not all pointless, though: The scenes with Grendel (here imagined as a pitiable giant who looks like Inside-Out Boy slathered in petroleum jelly) are actually scary as hell, suggesting a decent modern horror film could excel in this format. The extra dimension lends a feeling of heightened anxiety, and it’s surprisingly effective.

That said, I confess to being reluctant about this film from the start. The last movie I saw with CGI models that were meant to actually look human was 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, with its ghoulish, hi-tech puppets jerking around like marionettes in space. I’m glad to say the technology has improved in the intervening six years, to the point where these models look alive in their own way, less robotic, and more relatable. The movements onscreen in Beowulf, from the tremendous action sequences to the quieter moments that turn on slight facial gestures, are captured with unrivaled verisimilitude. The film truly is a triumph of modern animation, and a watershed moment even now, when CGI spectaculars are a dime a dozen.

Department of Corrections

In my review of American Gangster (Nov. 7), I referred to lead character Frank Lucas as a Greensboro native. It’s been widely circulated since that time that Lucas is from La Grange (outside Goldsboro), not Greensboro, and that the filmmakers were in error when they included a mention of the Gate City in the film. Let that be a lesson: Gangster movies can only teach you so much about North Carolina geography.

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