Sunday, March 23, 2008

Can't Stop the Geat

What has happened to Bob Zemeckis? How did the director of wonderful films like Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future and Forrest Gump -- movies about, you know, people -- become a manufacturer of soulless animation? Following 2004's The Polar Express, his creepy-as-hell Christmas story, Zemeckis has now turned to Norse legend with Beowulf, only to return to Yuletide celebration with A Christmas Carol (ugh) due next year. As the middle movie in this trifecta, Beowulf is, as far as I can recall 8th-grade English class, relatively faithful to its source material; and there's nothing inherently wrong with the liberties Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary's script takes, since it's not great literature anyway. It's about beasties -- first Grendel, then Grendel's mum, and finally a dragon -- attacking a kingdom of perpetually drunk Danes, and the titular Geat war-monger who rides in with his circa. 500 A.D. posse to save the day. Like The Magnificent Seven, though the monsters here are far less scary than Eli Wallach.

One of Spielberg's disciples, Zemeckis has always been in friendly competition with his mentor, as well as George Lucas, James Cameron and every other F/X guru of the last thirty years. Still, it used to be that Zemeckis deftly blended his special effects into a compelling story: Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was groundbreaking, to be sure, but it also featured a great lead performance from Bob Hoskins; and some of the most remarkable effects in Forrest Gump were the ones that were almost unnoticeable, like the amputation of Lt. Dan's legs. Now he appears hellbent on being a pioneer in "performance capture" animation, where the actors' physical gestures (and, of course, voices) are later employed into the characters.

Based on Beowulf -- which is, technically speaking, a marked improvement over The Polar Express -- I can see the appeal of this: it allows for greater visual freedom (such as in a swimming race that turns into a battle between Beowulf and a sea monster) and permits actors to play their characters (or even a variety of characters) from youth to old-age. If it was evident that the story still came first, then Zemeckis would really have something here. As it stands, all I'm looking at onscreen is something visually ugly -- like a computer game, though I understand there's a demographic for that -- and a bunch of animated characters who can't compete with the soulfulness of their human counterparts. Compare Ray Winstone's Beowulf and Robin Wright Penn's princess with the real McCoys, and the comparison ends there. (As for Grendel, he's not half as weirdly entertaining as the person who plays him, Crispin Glover.) I'd almost like to think that Zemeckis, still in the testing stage with new technology, is presently choosing subject matter he doesn't really give a damn about. But if he doesn't care, then why should we?


Matt Zoller Seitz said...

Although I am a rare defender of this film -- I thought of it as a moving storybook, with all the pictorial splendor and relative inexpressiveness that implies -- I enjoyed your take on it, and I chuckled at the title.

Craig said...

I find titles difficult but fun. Those behind the scenes at The New Yorker's "Current Cinema" are the best at it. (One of my all-time faves is Denby's review of The Passion, titled "Nailed"). Wolcott, or whoever works with/for him, comes up with some doozies too.

Anonymous said...

Someone has to chime in and defend Beowulf as a work of literature: check out Irish poet Seamus Heaney's recent translation because it is really beautiful. And you can listen to him (with his rich voice and dialect) read portions of it in the audio book version.

I'm curious how this movie version compares with one that came out a couple of years ago, Beowulf & Grendel with Gerard Butler as Beowulf. Any comments?

Craig said...

You're right, Anonymous -- I was too dismissive of the text. I've heard great things about the Heaney translation.

I've only seen a bit of Beowulf & Grendel and don't remember much about it. I do confess to having a guilty pleasure affinity for The 13th Warrior, which incorporates elements of Beowulf and some other Norse mythology with actual history. Critics dumped on the picture but lots of historians and literary folk love it.