Monday, November 26, 2007

© 2007 by Paramount Pictures and Shangri-La Entertainment, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Beowulf shouldn't cause any animator restless nights

It’s easy to be cynical about the reasons behind why a movie gets made, and the manner in which it is made, but the new animated feature “Beowulf” has struck me as a near textbook example of how form trumps substance.

The sloppily directed movie couldn’t stand on its own without its gimmicks, but it is those gimmicks that have given a sub-par film a whole lot of buzz in the pre-holiday release season.

Setting aside the pedigree of the script by two fine writers – Neil Gaimen and Roger Avery– for a moment, let’s imagine this acid test: would “Beowulf” have been made at all if it didn’t have its video game animation aided by motion capture, its prurient brushes with nudity, the use of a name brand cast and its multiple platform release?

If you’ve seen the movie and you’re a fan of it, then God bless. I contend that “Beowulf” would never be in the same league with the “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy if it had been made the same way – a live action cast operating in often times CGI world.

Before seeing the film, I had a discussion with a friend that “Beowulf” wasn’t an animated movie in the way a Harryhausen film, or a Pixar movie is an animated movie. While I’ll certainly call an animated film, I maintain the use of motion capture puts the animation at a different – lower – level.

This is not meant to be an insult to the many fine artists who labored on this film, however when one of the principal selling points of the film – here’s the marketing campaign showing itself – is the “life-like” animation of major stars, then one must acknowledge that “Beowulf” is 21st century rotoscoping.

When Max Fleischer invested rotoscoping nearly a century ago, he was seeking a solution for economical and speedy animation. Interestingly enough, as the number of skilled artists came into the industry Fleischer’s use of rotoscoping declined.

The studio’s last major use of the technique was in 1939’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” when the Gulliver character was rotoscoped in many scenes. This was an artistic decision to separate Gulliver from the Lilliputians.

Ralph Bakshi’s three rotoscoped features “The Lord of the Rings,” American Pop” and “Fire and Ice” are films he told me he admired, but he didn’t particularly like.

When used for an artistic effect such as in “A Scanner Darkly,” rotoscoping becomes merely another tool for an artist to use. That is not the case for “Beowulf.”

With this film, the motion capture is used to create a novelty of transferring well-known actors to the animated screen and allowing their filmed performances to become the basis for the animation – robbing the animators of the opportunity to do fully what animation is all about: creating the illusion of life.

The audience knows fully they are watching Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie instead of animated characters. The film achieves an annoying sense of self-consciousness through this effect.

And the result of this animation style is a cross between video game fare and Madame Tussaud’s wax sculptures.

The greater irony is that despite a budget of $150 million, the main characters project far more acting through the vocal performances than the animation. A Bugs Bunny 2-D cartoon made in 1943 shows a greater range of acting that in “Beowulf.”

Jolie has been nude on film once before in “Gia,” but her animated nudity and that of Beowulf himself is another irritating part of the film.

The film’s PG-13 rating doesn’t seem to be tested by the film’s abundant violence. Nipples and genitalia, though, are another thing. That is why we have Jolie’s character without nipples and labia when she is seen and why Beowulf hides his penis artfully during his fight scene with Grendel.

Well, if we can’t see such things why suggest them? Because we want to create a buzz. It’s not about the art of the film. It’s so people talk about the scenes on the Web. They’ll wonder if Jolie’s actual breasts were used as the model and that sort of thing.

By having Beowulf naked, but then hiding his penis behind jugs of mead, the film derails the climatic fight and turns it into a smug joke. I doubt that’s what Gaimen and Avery had intended.

Robert Zemeckis’ haphazard direction further sinks this production. The vocal performances are all over the map with the characters all speaking with a different accent. Crispin Glover’s Grendel is incomprehensible at times.

There are many unanswered questions presented by the film. Why does the flame in the mead hall turn blue when Grendel is there? When Grendel is defeated is it because Beowulf has shattered his over-sized eardrum? Why does he shrink in size? Why do Jolie’s feet turn into high heels worthy of a strip club when she appears before Beowulf? This is Denmark in the sixth century, right?

Take away its gimmicks and you take away the power of this film to attract a word-of-mouth audience. In its two weeks of release “Beowulf” has earned $56.4 million. It has a long way to go to become profitable. In the parlance of the industry, I doubt this film has legs.

I can’t believe this film has the more traditional animation community worried about the death of the older forms of the art. This is a mediocre film whose gimmicks have been sold with the calculation of a William Castle but with none of his fun. If it does have a lasting impact it is only because its box office numbers has convinced the soulless suits that run the entertainment industry that gimmickry, not style or substance is the way to go.

© 2007 by Gordon Michael Dobbs


Mark Martin said...

Just give me Swee'Pea crawling in and out between the feet of that walking elephant. Take Jolie's neutered tits and throw them on the fire.

dogboy443 said...

Glad I passed on this one. Give me mutant rat people anytime.

The Other Mark M.

Michael Sporn said...

Nice article. I just thought I'd note that the last rotoscoping on a Fleischer film was probably the human-ones in Mr. Bug or one of the final Superman shorts. Though your point is taken.

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