Saturday, March 22, 2008

Oi, Grendel! 'Ave some!

Continuing in the tradition of being impressed by movies of which I have previously been pretty damn unsure, I recently watched Beowulf. Now, before I go too far, I wasn't that impressed. But it wasn't a clusterfuck, and that's something.

The main reason I found myself watching it was I was interested in the adaptation of legend into contemporary storytelling. Modern audiences, though pretty fucking shallow for the most part, will not accept the 'that's just how it happened' nature of storytelling in myth. Mythological characters rarely have a compelling or even vaguely believable psychology. They're often not even really archetypes, tending more towards amalgamations of human experience. This is where Beowulf fits, as a morality tale about those who strive for glory.

In the film Beowulf, while he is still the skilled warrior of the poem, is an unreconstructed braggart. Great, fine. In a society where word-of-mouth is the only way for information to travel, this would be a great way to have a legend form. But, and this is a big but, even his own men think he's full of shit. And here we come to the main problem with the film. In trying to turn mythological characters into actual characters, the writers have left the story wholly unbelievable. Why would his men follow him on a lunatic quest for glory when they think he's a lying toerag? There are plenty of these gaps of logic, and they generally occur around the points in the story where the writers have failed to ally the story they're compelled to at least vaguely try to tell with their interpretation of Beowulf's character. It doesn't entirely break the movie, but it's distracting, because if you have made fundamental assumptions about how someone behaves, it is not acceptable to go entirely against those assumptions because you are constricted by the original story.

It's quite a pretty film, though has the usual glassy-eyed staring that CG characters tend to suffer from. This might just be rose-tinted amnesia, but I'm sure some of the characters in The Spirits Within looked better. There's also some really obtrusive and annoying (virtual) camera work. The director is clearly too enamoured with his toybox to actually use it properly. It's as though Orson Welles climbed into his crane with a bucket full of Pixie Sticks. It zooms, swoops and dives all over the place for no reason that I can discern, and it is desperately annoying.

With all that said, it wasn't a bad film. There is some genuinely great design work in it, which counts a lot more for a CG movie than it would otherwise. It's well-paced, and plenty of the vocal performances are strong, though I can't help but think it would have been better for a cast of unknowns, especially with all the actors providing faces and performances. Suffice it to say, the idea that all that's keeping you from seeing Ray Winston's digi-bollocks being a shader setting is quite disconcerting.

I seem to be having trouble summing this up. A lot of small petty things annoyed me. I couldn't believe the motivations of many of the characters. There was a lot of unnecessary reference to Christianity replacing the old Norse religions. Grendel, for some fucking reason, spoke 11th-century Anglo-Saxon in 5th-century Denmark. And yet, I enjoyed it.


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