‘Beowulf’ isn’t poetry in motion capture

Viewers of the “red-band” trailer for “Beowulf” see more of Angelina Jolie.
(Paramount Pictures and Shangri-La Entertainment, LLC)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

In the half-century since Hollywood first flirted with 3-D movies, the special glasses required for viewing have gotten a whole lot more substantial. The stories being filmed, however, are just as flimsy.

Of course “Beowulf,” which was screened for critics only in 3-D, does have a more impressive literary pedigree than, say, “Bwana Devil.” Seamus Heaney, who did an admired recent translation from the Anglo-Saxon, called it “one of the foundation works of poetry in English.” But you’d never know that by what director Robert Zemeckis has put on screen.

Working from a script by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, “Beowulf’s” story of a hero who slays monsters has become a Fan Boy Fantasy that panders to the young male demographic with demonic energy. As Avary says in the press material, with a lot more truth than poetry, “I think teens will get their rocks off with this film.” If they don’t, the simultaneous release (are you surprised?) of a triple-A video game should certainly help.

Given this aim, even though one authority comments that the original Beowulf “contains curiously little action,” it’s to be expected that the movie version is overstuffed with gore- fest moments like geysers of blood spurting from eyeballs and a monster chewing loudly on a bitten-off head. Ah, to be 15 again, or at least old enough to avoid the film’s spurious PG-13 rating.

If you are old enough to vote, however, seeing all this in 3-D may not be the thrill of a lifetime. Seeing the naked rear-end of an old and overweight man in that extra dimension is probably not a treat for anyone of any age. Though it is amusing to see a return to the staples of 1950s 3-D like spears thrown directly at the audience, the film’s dimensionality feels more like a gimmick than an added value.

Also not helping is Zemeckis’ use of the same performance-capture system he employed on “Polar Express,” a technique that transfers the actors’ motions to the screen but allows their appearance to be monkeyed with.

So Anthony Hopkins can be made old and fat as King Hrothgar and Angelina Jolie can appear naked when she isn’t as the monster Grendel’s mother. It’s a procedure that pleased Ray Winstone, Beowulf himself, because “it allowed someone like me, who is 5-feet-10 and a little on the plump side, to play a 6-foot-6 golden-haired Viking.”

Intriguing as this technique is in small doses -- Peter Jackson used it for Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy -- when it’s applied to an entire motion picture it makes everything look considerably less real than ordinary film. “Beowulf” appears so cartoony, in fact, that the academy just put it on the short list of films to be considered for the Oscar in feature animation.

Problematic as some of its visual elements are, “Beowulf” is still more something to see than to hear. Rarely has so much expensive technique been put at the service of such feeble and pathetic screenwriting.

As created by Gaiman (“Stardust”) and Avary (an Oscar for “Pulp Fiction,” opprobrium for “Killing Zoe”), “Beowulf’s” dialogue is about what you’d expect, maybe a little more stupid, with lines like “no wonder my loins are burning” showing up with depressing regularity.

The script’s main claim to interest is the way it Hollywoodizes the structure of the original poem, using the thread of sex to tie together the story’s first part, where Beowulf slays the monster Grendel, with the second, where he takes on a massive dragon decades later. It’s a defensible choice, but it’s a bit delusional for Zemeckis to claim that “this should stir some debate in academia.”

Set in Denmark in the year 507 and not a moment sooner, “Beowulf” does basically follow the plot of the poem, though it adds a quasi-romantic angle and some dismal burlesque elements.

After the grotesque monster Grendel (Crispin Glover) all but destroys the great hall of Danish king Hrothgar, the reward offered draws the heroic Beowulf, a Geat not a Geek. He in turn draws the attention of comely queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn) and the disdain of local thane Unferth (John Malkovich), but it is Grendel’s mother, as it turns out, that he really has to worry about.

What is most troubling about “Beowulf,” aside from the obvious, is what it says about the career of Robert Zemeckis, who has gone from being a director of stories like “Forrest Gump” to an orchestrator of eye candy and a willing slave to technological advances.

If you want to understand what the pressure of Hollywood does to talent, if you want to experience where the movie business is heading in a big way, this benighted but likely remunerative film is the place to start.

“Beowulf.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sexual material and nudity. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes. In general release.