Robert Zemeckis is one of my favorite directors; Back to the Future, Forest Gump, Contact, all classics. He's been pushing the visual effects envelope for most of his career, from mixing animation with live action in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? to being one of the first filmmakers to use CG to create realistic effects in Forrest Gump. It makes sense that computer-generated films are at the top of the effects heap, that he moved into that arena. I wasn't that big of a fan of The Polar Express, it had it's moments, and I think it's not a bad film for kids; but as a Zemeckis film, I'd consider it one of his lesser ones.
The reviews for Beowulf were fairly mixed, so I wasn't sure what I was getting into. But almost instantly I liked it more than Polar Express, the characters looked much more realistic, not as dead in the eyes, yet they're still a bit strange, because he's trying to create realistic looking humans, and they're not quite there yet. Give it another 10 years and it'll be hard to tell the difference. Stylized characters work much better in animation, and I really loved the tortured monster look they gave Beowulf's nemesis Grendel, and the dragon Beowulf fights at the end, may just be the coolest looking dragon yet created for film. At first it was weird to watch a digital Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Angelina Jolie and so on; but they still give great performances and the effect grew on me as the film went on.
I saw an excellent Beowulf film about a year back called Beowulf and Grendel, that created a realistic feel out of the epic myth. Zemeckis' Beowulf tries no such thing, going full out with the fantasy trappings; including immortal witches, dragons, sea monsters and deadly curses. The film is a visual feast, full of grand sweeping camera moves impossible in live-action and beautiful locations from the wide-open-ocean to dank-caves. I was also pleasantly surprised by how violent the film is, bodies torn asunder, head's bitten off, limbs removed, and swords plunged, the digital blood flows freely. The film's battles are all pretty epic; I think that any fan of Lord of the Rings would appreciate this film.
The story is really nicely told as well. The history for why Grendel is so pissed, ties in nicely with what happens to Beowulf; really taking the idea of those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it to a whole new incestuous level. Beowulf is an incredible hero, conquering everything that stands in his path, but also a very tragic and flawed character; you get to see him from a young brash fighter, to an old weary king. You feel sorry for the monster Grendel, he's portrayed wonderfully by Crispin Glover, who specializes in tortured souls. Most of the characters are rounded out nicely.
I'm surprised that Beowulf didn't receive higher praise. It's a slightly-flawed film, but a highly entertaining and excellently made one; creating a beautiful new world out of this ancient poem. I think as more people see it on video, especially the kids that grow up with it, will love it, and it may go down as a minor classic. I look forward to seeing what Zemeckis will get up to next, it looks like he's animating another classic story with A Christmas Carol; live action films has lost one of their greats, but computer animation has a new master. - Grade: B+