‘Polar Express’ meets medieval milf

Never read “Beowulf”? That’s okay. Apparently, neither have the scriptwriters of Robert Zemeckis’ version of the Old English epic, and they still managed to squeeze a thoroughly entertaining plot out of it.

“Beowulf” might not be the first time Zemeckis (also responsible for the “Back to the Future” trilogy) experiments with the motion-capture animation method (recall “The Polar Express”), but it’s certainly his best work in that department. In this late-autumn edition of a summer blockbuster, swords clash, monsters growl and a naked Angelina Jolie seduces mighty warriors — all in a stunningly vivid animated Scandinavian world. But all this visual splendor cannot make up for the lack of real actors. The artificial coldness of the characters’ eyes and the unnatural air of their movements make the movie look like a two-hour video game — fun, but devoid of substance.

In “Beowulf,” Anthony Hopkins models and voices King Hrothgar, whose kingdom is terrorized by the bloodthirsty monster Grendel (Crispin Glover). Beowulf (Ray Winstone), along with 14 of his best warriors, crosses the sea in order to offer his beast-slaying services to Hrothgar. He manages to cut off Grendel’s arm, and the monster’s subsequent untimely demise angers its unnamed mother, a witch who has the power to assume the form of Angelina Jolie. After a meeting with her, Beowulf announces that she, too, has fallen victim to his mighty sword, but mysteriously fails to bring her head as evidence. Peace in the kingdom is restored, but proves only temporary. Years later, when Beowulf has assumed Hrothgar’s position, a new threat — a golden dragon — casts a shadow on his reign.

Boldly omitting parts of the original text, stitching together battles belonging to different storylines and settings and coming up with completely new, Hollywood-approved conflicts, the script of “Beowulf” has been adapted to appeal to a 21st-century audience. Forget ugly underwater monsters — Angelina Jolie’s curves are a much deadlier weapon than fangs or claws. Don’t expect the typical boring “battle-win-get-eternal-glory” sequence, either: This “Beowulf” features lies, betrayal, weakness and the ever-present greed for power at any cost. And once you get over the initial “Oh my god, they butchered my freshman year English project!” reaction, all of the above makes sense. While “Beowulf” may be classic literature, a faithful adaptation would not exactly be the best material for an exciting movie experience. This upgraded Zemeckis version, however, certainly delivers thrills with every mighty Scandinavian blow.

Indeed, action fans will not be disappointed with this movie. Even if it does spin a story more tangled and unpredictable than expected, “Beowulf” certainly doesn’t dwell on the psychological for too long. Instead, it provides a satisfactory dose of purely physical, brutal kick-ass extravaganza which, despite a rather disappointing first battle with Grendel, gets increasingly better as the movie progresses and culminates in the beautifully executed, tension-filled fight between Beowulf and the dragon. Here, too, one can’t get rid of the “video-game” deja vu; this roller-coaster ride of violence, magic and gratuitous nudity strongly echoes gamers’ aesthetic and mentality.

The movie seems content with its popcorn-flick status and does not make the mistake of taking itself too seriously. On the contrary, bits of humor are snuck into the plot and most often target the characters themselves with a gentle, yet detectable irony and ridicule. From the very beginning of the film, for example, Beowulf’s gigantic ego and tendency to exaggerate his achievements is revealed. While exposing the main hero as a braggart would be unthinkable within the oral tradition the epic stems from, in this modernized version it actually makes Beowulf a more human and believable character. Similarly, his right-hand warrior’s unwillingness to venture into the cave of the monsters is such a natural example of self-preservation winning over senseless bravery that it’s easy to relate to him.

So one question remains: Was motion-capture the best choice? As developed as it has obviously become, the technology still cannot produce a truly convincing representation of human movement and expression. In terms of emotional depth (and the facial nuances required to convey it), animated counterparts do not even come close to real actors. The faces, however accurate in their resemblance of the respective actor, lack the warmth and elasticity of real human skin — an irritating feeling of artificiality marks the entire movie experience. But for a poem-based video game, it’s still pretty damn good.

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