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The Ministry of Silly Geats

Beowulf posterWell, OK, I finally saw Beowulf yesterday, in 3D, and if you really want to know, it stinks. Motion capture, by rounding off the edges of reality, makes a script that was too comic-bookish to begin with seem even more comic-bookish. As a devotee of Carl Barks and Will Eisner and a few other great cartoonists, I hate to use that phrase "comic-bookish," but here it fits: I was reminded constantly of superhero comic books, and not just because Beowulf himself recalls the early Superman in his astonishing strength, his leaps just short of flight, and his ability to absorb terrible physical punishment. Beowulf also shares in the essential arbitrariness of the superhero genre, which is firmly separated from real life not just by its sensational events but by how the characters respond to them. I couldn't for a moment believe anything I saw on the screen.

I have done little more than skim the eighth-century poem "Beowulf" since I was in college—I still own the copy I owned then—but I remember it as a much more serious enterprise than the film. The poem offers a hero plausible in the harsh environment in which Beowulf's real-life contemporaries lived; as one translator says, the poem enlarges human actions but does not falsify them. The poem's Beowulf kills Grendel's mother, there being no question of sleeping with her, as the film's Beowulf does. The anonymous author of "Beowulf" did not share the film's all too up-to-date preoccupation with unsavory couplings.

The movie is so silly that in the early going I kept thinking of Monty Python, thanks especially to Ray Winstone's London accent and the urban cynicism that seems always to be lurking in Beowulf's voice. Had a little more imagination been applied to the script—which is credited to the widely praised comic-book writer Neil Gaiman (Sandman) and Roger Avary—this could have been one hell of a funny movie. But, as it is, we have Gaiman adrift, which I suspect may be the usual case when his writing isn't inviting comparisons with James Branch Cabell, the Virginia fantasist. People who have read more widely in his oeuvre will have to make that judgment.

The "animation" in Beowulf—the transformation of actors' recorded performances into something neither wholly artificial nor persuasively real—is in one sense an advance over Robert Zemeckis's first two mo-cap films (The Polar Express and Monster House), because it's so much slicker. But it's slicker in the way that all computer-based animation has gotten slicker: there are lots of individual hairs and moles and other stray recreations of the surface of life. Most of the time, mo-cap just gets in the way: these characters would be more acceptable if played by the real actors, without the veil of mo-cap between us and them. The climactic fight with the dragon is, if my eyes don't deceive me, mostly or perhaps entirely CGI animation, with little or no mo-cap. It's also the one part of Beowulf that works reasonably well—but how many CGI dragon fights have we seen by now? Isn't there one at the end of Disney's new Enchanted, too? How many more do we need?

I've written about mo-cap a couple of times before, favorably (Polar Express) and less so (Monster House). When I wrote about Monster House, I suggested that mo-cap would turn out to be a highly limited tool, suited at most only to a very few films whose atmosphere, like that of Polar Express, could be strengthened by the technology. Beowulf simply confirms me in that judgment. There are, of course, many fans who reject mo-cap on theological grounds (the fundamentalists among them reject almost all computer animation). They see, and condemn, in a film like Polar Express only its differences from mainstream animation, especially of the hand-drawn kind. But every form of animation has its inherent limitations; mo-cap's are simply more severe than most. Hand-drawn animation may seem to have limitless potential, but that's only because the most successful examples have adhered to just a few models, the early Disney features in particular, and alternatives have rarely been explored. One of these days, if creative filmmakers ever get to explore hand-drawn's animation's possibilities more thoroughly than has yet been the case, we'll have a much better sense of what such animation can do best, and what it has no business doing at all.

Beowulf has not done particularly well at the box office, after the initial flurry of interest following its release in November, and perhaps it will turn out to be the beginning of the end for mo-cap. If so, good. But I hope the animation bluenoses won't succeed in throttling efforts to find other new tools.

[Posted December 11, 2007]