‘Beowulf’ grabs a ride on ‘The Polar Express’

Special to The Times

Angelina Jolie’s lips look even fuller than usual. She’s emerging naked from a pool of dank cave water, rivulets of gold streaming gently down her body.

“Giiiif meee sonnnn,” she coos, in an Old English accent.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 27, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 27, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
‘Beowulf’: In some copies of Wednesday’s Calendar section, an article about Robert Zemeckis’ new movie, “Beowulf,” said that Crispin Glover, who portrays Grendel, had last worked with Zemeckis when he played Marty McFly in 1985’s “Back to the Future.” He played George McFly, Marty’s father, in that film.

Her flaxen hair is braided down her back in a long tail that slowly undulates and slaps the dark pool around her. She continues to purr enticements about making babies as a virtual camera circles 360 degrees panning around her long limbs and waist. Gold dribbles down her inner thighs past her feet, revealing sharp stilettos merged with bestial hooves.

Welcome to the world of Paramount Pictures’ “Beowulf,” as imagined by Robert Zemeckis, the same filmmaker who last bore zombie-like children in stiff pajamas riding a speeding train into the North Pole. Except this time Zemeckis is using his increasingly sophisticated bag of tricks to serve up adult fantasy (or a minimum of PG-13).


Adapted from the oldest story in the English language, “Beowulf” is a hyper violent and highly sexualized tale of the warrior Beowulf (Ray Winstone) who must slay the monster Grendel (Crispin Glover). Later, Grendel’s mother (Jolie) seduces Beowulf so that she can produce a replacement heir that will allow her to reestablish her dominion over the kingdom. (Hence, Giiiif meee sonnn.)

The first public viewing of “Beowulf” will be served up in digital 3-D projection at Comic-Con in San Diego tonight before screening again in standard digital projection for thousands of genre fans on Thursday afternoon in the convention center’s Hall H. It’s impossible to say how this taste-making crowd will respond, even if some involved in the project have taken to describing it as “ ‘Lord of the Rings’ meets ‘300.’ ”

But Zemeckis producing partner Steve Starkey is betting that “Beowulf’s” horror-fantasy elements coupled with digital 3-D -- not to mention a digitally enhanced Jolie matched with a heroic Beowulf -- will be embraced by a genre crowd hungry for a big story with big themes that also delivers heaping amounts of cinematic spectacle.

“I think this will be right up Comic-Con’s alley,” Starkey said on Monday.

After poring over dozens of translations of the historic Anglo-Saxon epic poem, best known as required reading by high school and college English students across the country, screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary started translating the 3,183 lines of heroic poetry into cinematic language in May 1997.

What they delivered is a story of a brave and heroic young hero (Winstone) who makes small personal compromises that don’t seem hugely important along the path to his dreams but ultimately catch up to him.

Winstone is actually 50 years old, but thanks to wizardry of motion capture technology, he and other main characters age onscreen from teenagers to 70-year-olds as the film progresses. “It’s been a long time since I’ve looked 17 or 18 years old,” Winstone said, on a call from the set of “Indiana Jones IV,” in which he plays a character called “Mac.” “But I looked back at pictures of myself then and it’s weird how I look the same in the film as I did back then when I was a boxer.”


His knack for a good scrap is on show in one of the film’s pivotal fight scenes when Beowulf battles Grendel in the nude. (“Bob asked if he had to be nude, but we said, ‘It’s in the poem,’ ” Gaiman explained.) So in a crafty bit of staging to allow a PG-13 rating, Beowulf’s naughty bits are obfuscated by random objects in the foreground. It’s more subtle and subdued, but shadows, swords, mead flagons and shoulders block all in a sequence not unlike the prankish cloaking device used in “Austin Powers” films.

“We just thought we should maintain the integrity of the book and perform the fight the way it should be performed but at the same time cover up appropriately,” Sharkey said. To circumvent certain MPAA rating issues, the producer and director purged the script of foul language, used an array of blood colors, ranging from crimson to green, and dreamed up gravity-defying nude scenes.

In fact, given the original script’s wealth of blood, violence and nudity, there has been some talk about eventually producing an unrated version of “Beowulf” down the line.

“Things are tolerated in a different way in a mythological environment,” Starkey said. “People are willing to play more in fantasy worlds because it is so stylized.”

The hyper-real look of “Beowulf” is a testament to Zemeckis’ unique brand of fantastical experimentation.

Gaiman and Avary infused the script with allusions to gold, mead (medieval honey wine), “a proper fire-breathing dragon” and glory. Zemeckis then translated those words into a dark-washed denim world, speckled with fluorescences and phosphorescent water, luminous glints of golden bracelets, goblets and the reptilian villain known as Grendel.


Some may recognize Grendel for his uncanny resemblance to the new line of Devi Kroell faux metallic snakeskin handbags at Target. But it’s actually Crispin Glover beneath that shiny deciduous skin: “Beowulf” is Glover’s first reunion with Zemeckis since his herky-jerky turn as George McFly in 1985’s “Back to the Future.”

“Early on we were sitting around, just [fantasy] casting,” Gaiman recalled, sitting in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont recently. “Then we got on the subject of Crispin. Bob said he would never work with him again because he never hit his mark and didn’t understand how scenes cut together. But as he went on, you could see Bob realizing that was completely irrelevant if Crispin was in a motion-capture suit covered in dots, every move recorded.”

Glover was pulled into “Beowulf’s” motion-capture fold, along with the film’s royal family -- Anthony Hopkins (King Hrothgar), Robin Wright Penn (Queen Wealhtheow) and John Malkovich (Unferth) -- who performed 30 days of “principal mocapography” at Culver Studios on a 30-by-30-foot stage wearing standard-issue bodysuits covered head-to-toe in tiny sensors recorded by dozens of digital cameras back in December 2005.

“It was like watching the cast of ‘Tron’ performing bad Shakespeare in the round,” Gaiman said.

The writer admits he personally had his doubts about Zemeckis’ ability to pull off “Beowulf” given the “horrid little rotoscope-y ghost people” in “Polar Express.” Gaiman saw his first clips of the film last week and said he was convinced that Zemeckis, with his mocap filmmaking style and digital 3-D world, had made quantum advances in his unique filmic grammar since then.

“I have no idea if this thing is going to work because it isn’t done yet,” Gaiman said. “But because it’s so hyper-real and immersive, once you are two to three minutes in, I think it will own you for the full 90 minutes.”


Gaiman is also a vocal proponent of an unrated version of “Beowulf” down the line.

Even more than nudity, Gaiman said, “I just really miss all the swearing.”