"I am Beowulf, and I have come to kill your monster!" growls Ray Winstone in Robert Zemeckis' hi-tech motion-capture retelling of the Old English poem. The voice is unmistakable: a rugged, burly, no-nonsense bark, ideally suited to a yarn-spinning mercenary who lives to embellish his own legend. The face, though, is something else: a Nordic Sean Bean, all chiselled cheekbones, brooding stare and male-model stubble. As avatars go, Winstone doesn't have that much to complain about. Given the relative care taken to render his fellow voice stars' likenesses on screen, however, it's something of an insult. Hell, he looked more like Mr Beaver in Chronicles Of Narnia.
Using the same computer wizardry as Zemeckis’ The Polar Express with some additional bells and whistles, Beowulf goes a long way to correcting the dead-eyed look that made that 2004 Yuletide fable such a faintly creepy experience. Up close Anthony Hopkins' ageing king Hrothgar, Angelina Jolie's slinky siren and John Malkovich's sceptical knight are pretty much perfect facsimiles that answer a lot of questions about whether a performance can be adequately rendered in pixelized form. When the frame shifts to long shot, though, the limitations of this hybrid halfway-house between animation and live-action soon become apparent, the assorted thanes and swains in Hopkins' court having all the definition of an extra from Shrek.
Indeed, it's hard not to be reminded of that fairy-tale franchise by Zemeckis' film, whose grandiose take on the English language's oldest epic is continually undercut by Malkovich's weird Ruritanian accent, some bizarrely anachronistic dialogue ("Bollocks, Wulfgar!") and a prurient obsession with nudity. This Beowulf is never happier than when stripping off to grapple Crispin Glover’s Gollum-like ogre or revealing a heavily scarred torso in the heat of battle. Jolie's shape-shifting villainess, meanwhile, looks like she has just walked off a Playboy centrefold, the golden goo barely covering her rude bits pushing that 12A rating to the very limit. The violence is also near the knuckle, with one limb-hacking moment that would hardly look out of place in a horror movie.
The rest? Well, it's Eragon basically: swords, sorcery and an extended face-off between a wizened Beowulf and his evil dragon offspring that bludgeons the senses with its empty 3D spectacle. Some leavening humour might have helped dispel the portentous, gloomy tone and energise the boring scenes of exposition that fill the yawning chasms between action set-pieces. You exit mildly diverted by the story and admiring the technique; if this is the future of film, though, we'll stick with the past.
When computer animation looks this authentic, you wonder why they didn't just do it for real and have done with it. But we'll own up to being mightily impressed by the visuals, while Beowulf's fight with Crispin Glover's misshapen Grendel has to be the best naked tussle since Eastern Promises.
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