December 1st, 2007 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

The old meets the new as the oldest surviving work of literature in the English language gets the movie making technology treatment in the legend of Danish warrior Beowulf in 3D.

If you haven’t experienced 3D since a 1950s drive-in, you’re in for a shock. The new technology behind it means no more kitschy red and blue glasses and the full colour on-screen result is astounding. With no less than George Lucas, James Cameron and Peter Jackson throwing their weight behind it, 3D looks set to be the next big thing.

Although a computer-generated cartoon, Beowulf features the cast members heads scanned by motion capture, the technology that bought Lord of the Rings’ Gollum and 2005’s King Kong to the screen. As they can be put seamlessly onto digital bodies, we get to enjoy Angelina Jolie to all intents and purposes naked and portly Brit character actor Ray Winstone with washboard abs he’ll certainly never have in real life.

But the most interesting aspect of the adaptation is the writing team of adored fantasy author Neil Gaiman (who also wrote the recent Stardust) and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary. It’s a bizarre pairing, but you can see the appeal to both of a bloody, scary, adult-oriented cartoon set in a Tolkein-like world of 6th century Scandinavia.

The hero Beowulf comes from across the sea to answer a call for help from a small, debauched kingdom led by King Hrothgar (Hopkins) to rid them of a monster called Grendel, a malformed demon driven to rage by the noise of their constant revelry.

In their vicious battle, Beowulf mortally wounds Grendel, who limps back to his lair where an even more vicious beast awaits in his mother (Jolie). Rather than kill Beowulf outright in vengeance, she ensnares him in a Faustian bargain to make him king if he’ll father her another son. He returns to the villagers with a tale of bravery and adventure of him killing the beast, but we know better. Years later his son returns to lay siege in a terrifying new form just as Grendel did, the secret of a never-ending curse now dead with Hrothgar.

Avary and Gaiman have condensed and retooled parts of the plot to make the story more visual. The olde worlde dialogue is ham fisted at times and it’s full of the same pro-war lust for battle as many recent movies. And like any modern American retelling of a classic myth, don’t go looking for lessons in history or culture. They never stand in the way of a good chase sequence.

It’s unclear if the strong undercurrent of humour was intended. When Grendel’s mother sashays toward Beowulf on svelte high heels (not shoes — her actual heels) or when strategically placed candlesticks, wooden pillars and miscellany protect a naked Beowulf’s modesty during the Grendel fight, most of the audience will burst into snickers that don’t seem to belong in a historical epic.

Director Zemeckis (of Back to the Future and Cast Away fame) keeps the 3D gimmicks to a minimum as they detract from the story. As the first example of a bold new era it’s technically faultless, but slots neatly into pre-moulded Hollywood storytelling.

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