Heroic epic ‘Beowulf’ draws in audience with animation

3.5/5 stars
“Beowulf”
Starring Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
113 minutes
Rated PG-13
Animation, adventure, fantasy

It’s been a long time since an animated film was made that was aimed at an audience of adults only, but “Beowulf” succeeds in this medium better than it has in some of its live-action adaptations.

For the first time, the epic really springs to life with great special effects and monsters that could only be created as fantastically as they are in this method. Robert Zemeckis (“The Polar Express,” “Monster House”) finally makes his motion-capture technology work so realistically that there are instances in the film that actually look like live footage instead of animation. There is some gorgeous work done on the scenery alone.

The actors and actresses that lie underneath those animated facades are eerily realistic-looking as well, with the exception of the actor who plays Beowulf (Ray Winstone, “The Departed,” “King Arthur”). Winstone manages to lose a few pounds and a several years with the deft stroke of an animator’s keyboard to create an actor that doesn’t exist in reality.

This brings up some interesting fears for actors and artists alike of being replaced, but the technology is far from perfect. While the actors’ movements are recorded electronically and transformed into imagery, some of the more subtle nuances like facial expressions are missed. Even great actors like Anthony Hopkins (“Fracture,” “Hannibal”) and John Malkovich (“Eragon,” “The Libertine”) find their skills reduced to the power of their voice, despite their caricatures appearing on the screen.

The film’s power is due in large part to the skills of the screenwriters: Neil Gaiman (“Stardust,” “MirrorMask”) and Roger Avary (“Silent Hill,” “The Rules of Attraction”). The script stays pretty true to the original work of the epic poem as far as the main plot elements are concerned. Yet it also manages to skillfully update the story for modern audiences by making the characters more psychologically well-rounded with realistic motivations.

However, it is that same twist that will turn true fans of the original epic poem away. The modernization has a dark edge of not only infidelity and familial dysfunction, but also an odd “anti-interracial relationships” message when the characters have sex outside of their species. And that’s not even addressing the proposition that no man can resist a monster in the shape of Angelina Jolie (“The Good Shepherd,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”).

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Even more unsettling is the modernization of religious beliefs for a current audience. While there is some debate as to whether or not the original epic poem was Christian or pagan due to its anonymous writer, it is clearly pro-religion, with many philosophies and themes like “man survives only through the protection of God” and “all earthly gifts flow from God” imbedded in the manuscript.

Yet this film is anti-religion of any kind, equally slamming pagan and Christian beliefs. For instance, in the beginning Unferth (Malkovich) asks if they should pray to their pagan gods or to the new Roman deity Jesus Christ, to which King Hrothgar (Hopkins) responds not to bother because the gods don’t honor a man that doesn’t take care of things himself. There are other stabs at Christianity later in the film as well. This isn’t just a modernization; it goes against the very grain of the intent of the original work.

While the film itself is entertaining with great special effects and characters, it is not intended for children. There is plenty of gore and even nudity to keep kids away from. And while there is enough plot here to keep audiences interested for the duration, the story itself is quite unsettling and leaves viewers with a bad taste in their mouths.