The high-tech motion capture technique that director Robert Zemeckis uses here has improved considerably since 2004’s The Polar Express, but not enough to recommend that he use it again. True, the creepy thousand-yard stares have been cut down to about a hundred-and-seventy-five yards, but when it comes to inserting lifelike characters into fantastical environments, there is more effective technique called using actors, that worked much better in little film called 300.
Of course, the computer animated action allows the film to feature any number of bloody decapitations, eviscerations, dismemberments, and a full-frontal nude scene by a pregnant Angelina Jolie, and still somehow secure a PG-13 rating. Unfortunately, much like The Polar Express, this movie feels like a two-hour cut-scene from a video game that you don’t get to play.
Admirers of the original epic poem will probably have a conniption over the changes imagined by screenwriters Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman. This (Ray Winstone) Beowulf is a flawed hero, a braggart who gives into temptation. The whole point, however, of humanizing the hero is to improve the quality of storytelling, but this version of Beowulf is mostly an empty light show. Another reason for Zemeckis to abandon this method of computer animation is that he seems to be too in love with it to allow him to let go and simply tell his story. At least The Polar Express had a level of charm to the story that offset the disquieting lifelessness of the characters’ appearance. Beowulf lacks that advantage.
Frankly, I think computer animation will, for the foreseeable future, continue to be more effective using the sort of stylized characters found in the Pixar movies. The technology has not reached the point where it can create lifelike humans more effectively than simply putting an actor in front of a camera.
The technique does have intriguing possibilities, if it can be perfected. Imagine making another Terminator movie without worrying about how old Arnold Schwarzenegger has gotten. Perhaps, there could be another Star Wars movie with the original 1977-1983 cast. Harrison Ford could make Indiana Jones movies until he was eighty. For now, however, it doesn’t quite cut the mustard.