"Beowulf" is all right as far as it goes, and it goes pretty far for a PG-13 rating: Dismemberment, "300"-style blood globules comin' atcha, and a digitally futzed and, for all practical purposes, completely naked!!! Angelina Jolie slinking around in high heels--not shoes, but stiletto heels embedded in her snaky skin. "Enhanced motion capture" is what they call director Robert Zemeckis' halfway point between animation and live action. For all that money and all that technology, though, one question persists. Why does everybody look like Clutch Cargo after a day at the spa?
The old Anglo-Saxon poem doesn't have much to do with the new cinematic spectacle. I suspect the film will be a sizable hit because it's very much in the profitable, well-it's-different-anyway vein of "300." But if it weren't for its climactic smackdown between Beowulf (Ray Winstone) and a fire-spewing dragon sent to flatten Beowulf's kingdom by the mother (Angelina Jolie) of the slain beast Grendel (Crispin Glover), you really wouldn't have much of anything.
The dragon is much appreciated. Those are 15 good minutes, though even there the visual landscape is oddly uneven. When Winstone's Beowulf jogs 30 yards in the snow, it looks like a 12-year-old video game.
The film, set among the Geats and the Danes in the 6th Century A.D., is being released both "flat" and in two different 3-D formats. (I saw it at the IMAX 3-D theater on Navy Pier.) I will say this for it: This is a thoroughly conceived 3-D job, with everyone--everyone--doing those 3-D-friendly foreground tosses of weaponry toward the camera.
In a computer-generated beard (really, why send a computer to do a real beard's job?) Anthony Hopkins plays the drunken sot king Hrothgar, whose queen (Robin Wright Penn, looking like something that escaped from American Girl) has not produced an heir. John Malkovich, delivering his lines in a High Snivel dialect, skulks around as Unferth, his right-hand thane. He sees Beowulf, who has risked CGI life and limb to travel to Denmark to kill the beast, as a rival for the king's affections. Beowulf's also a braggart and purveyor of the most defined abs and pec-tacular fighting spirit this side of Sparta.
At one point Beowulf strips down to nothing as he prepares to meet Grendel man-to-beast, with no weaponry or loincloths, even. The resulting scene, full of Austin Powers and Peter Sellers duck-and-cover games with the bait 'n' tackle, reminds you that Zemeckis may be willing to try anything, but the more he monkeys around with enhanced motion capture, the less he seems to care about dramatic effectiveness and matters of tone. The look of this film improves on the eerie humanoid look of "The Polar Express," which he also directed, but just barely.
Millions will disagree, I bet. Besides, that dragon sequence saves the movie almost single-clawed. The script by graphic novel specialist Neil Gaiman and "Pulp Fiction" co-writer Roger Avary pulls some viable twists on the original tale, having to do with paternity issues (who was Grendel's father?) and a newly invented Faustian bargain made by Beowulf and Grendel's mom. Yet I don't really see the need for actors in this cinematic universe.
There's just enough real filmmaking going on in "Beowulf" to remind you of Zemeckis' talent: The sequence preceding Jolie's first big scene, set in a watery cavern, builds carefully and insinuatingly and for a few minutes, everybody forgets about throwing things at the camera so the audience can go "aaahhhh!" I realize the audience wants to go "aaahhhh!" It's why movies became popular in the first place. But as far as cinematic mythology goes, this film flies only so high. And call me anti-Geat, but I was rooting for Crispin Glover's Grendel all along.