Director Robert Zemeckis spent who knows how many tens of millions of dollars in an effort to perfectly simulate, down to the tiniest detail, with meticulous microscopic accuracy... the human face. As Zemeckis surely discovered way too late in the production of Beowulf, there is no number of cleverly rendered lines around the eyes or individually drawn facial hairs or specifically calculated skin pores that can enliven a dead cartoon face.
No, wait -- you can't even call Beowulf cartoonish. When they're done right, cartoons are visually metaphoric, symbolic, impressionistic. We don't look to, say, the stylized visages of Beauty or the Beast or Princess Fiona for the subtle traces of human expression. We do look for that here... and we don't see it. What we do see is a bizarre parody of humanity. It's as if we're looking at walking corpses trying to fool us into thinking they're alive.
Why? Why go through all the bother of hooking human actors up to sensors, capturing their motion, recording their voices and translating them into computerized images that, for the most part, look exactly like them (except for the dead eyes and slack facades)? What's the point? Why not just, you know, film the actors?
It makes perfect sense that, if you want to tell a story like this -- set in medieval Denmark and featuring places that no longer exist and monsters that never existed at all -- you would want to use the best special FX available to create those things. And Zemeckis and his team of wizards do that wonderfully. Snowy mountain vistas, ancient castles and dragons (the dragon sequence toward the end of the film is truly thrilling, the dragon itself a thing of terrible beauty) are all fine and would have been impossible to invent or replicate so well without computer assistance. But stories are supposed to be about people, and the real people have been rendered -- no pun intended -- curiously blank.
Which is extra disturbing, in fact, because the intriguing extrapolation of the Beowulf tale by screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery explores the monster Grendel's (Crispin Glover) motivation in attacking the ancient Danish kingdom -- not to spoil it if you really must see the film, but it involves the king's (Anthony Hopkins) denial of a basic humanity to Grendel. And the script also expands, from the original AD700 epic poem, on the monster-slayer Beowulf (Ray Winstone), granting him flaws and hubrises we have not seen before in the ur-Hero. This is, in this iteration, a story about people -- yet, again, their "peopleness" has been animated out of the very faces we should be riveted by.
It's an inertness that is compounded by its own self-consciousness. Zemeckis wants to be both gritty and bawdy in his telling, yet he is overly coy about it in all ways. Beowulf insists, for instance, that for their big battle he must face the monster Grendel naked, not just without weapons but without a stitch of clothing. An actual warm-blooded human actor might have sold us on a rash audacity and confident physical prowess that has nothing to do with how exposed Beowulf is either to the monster's claws or to our eyes. But instead we're given the peculiarly bashful specter of a Ken doll jumping around in front of strategically placed swords and crossbeams. If that is supposed to remind us of that Austin Powers' bit, it works. But if it is meant to humanize the hero, it fails -- in fact, it does nothing but make us guffaw during what should be one of the most intense and dramatic moments of the film.
I'd love to have seen what a director like, say, Terry Gilliam would have made of this. His version would not, of course, have made good fodder for IMAX nor the upcoming Beowulf video game. It would have been for people, not for corporate synergy.