Sunday, November 18, 2007


On one hand, I'm at a loss as to what to write about Beowulf, the recent all-CGI film from Robert Zemeckis. But that's not going to stop me from figuring out what to say on the fly.

But before I over think it (and take you with me), I genuinely enjoyed it. Overall.

And I think it's important for the film to do well.

The film is based on the Old English epic poem (author unknown) created sometime between the 8th and the 11th century.


At least it follows the framework of titular hero Beowulf fighting Grendel, Grendel's mommy, and a dragon. And it's well-extended by writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, the former of whom I'm a big fan.

Why's the film important to me?

Because it's pushing technology in a big way to further narrative.

Beowulf is the next foray in "performance capture", the evoluton of "motion capture", technology used to capture realistic movement and translate it to animation. Unlike the coarse-grain capture of MoCap technology, performance capture aims to catch the nuanced movement of film acting. And it aims to put quality acting back into animated films -- not replace the actors (an active agenda of some film makers).

Zemeckis, James Cameron, and Steven Spielberg are all working on their versions of performance capture technology. A film like Beowulf is gutsy, because it pushes technology when it may not be received well commercially. Think about how Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within tanked at the box office, caused the shut down of that studio, and set back CGI-only development for arguably 5 years. (By the way, I actually like The Spirits Within.)

Beowulf is probably a more accessible mass market offering (no Japanese animist philosophy), and it is pretty well done, though there are some miss-steps (let's just say, "Naked fighting is laughable", and go from there).

And the production qualtiy is a bit uneven. I saw the film opening night on IMAX 3D. And while it's probably true the film was "designed with IMAX in mind", it wasn't designed exclusively for IMAX; so it does a bad job of violating some of the IMAX rules (no quick pans), and some of the 3D implementation is gimmicky ("Throw the coins at the audience!"), rather than servicing the film, and ends up getting in the way of the film.

You can also see (as in a lot of animated films or video games), more time was spent in some places than others (Angelina Jolie is lovingly crafted; but I thought some of the king's tarts look a little Shrekish). That said, there is some amazing detail (Beowulf as Geatly appropriate nose hair), and some of the fine grain movements -- emotions in and around eyes, the layers of fluid in the eyes, etc. -- are incredibly well done.

All told, I found this to be an enjoyable film, with some good narrative devices and some deeper themes (with some possibly unfortunate agendas).

I plan on seeing Beowulf again, but on the traditional screen, to see if it translates even better. And to see if the naked fighting is any less distracting.