Beowulf the Movie

I found the movie Polar Express to be a very creepy experience due to the motion capture animation. It was like watching zombies riding a train to visit Santa (not to mention Santa’s entrance was straight from The Triumph of the Will). I think taking any child to see that movie would most likely scare the whole idea of Christmas right out of them.

I recently saw Beowulf, in which director Robert Zemeckis (who also directed Polar Express) makes another try at motion capture. And, I have to say, it is much much better. The character no longer look like zombies, which is really a vast improvement. Now they look like puppets. The main difference is in the eyes–they have evidently improved the technology significantly when it comes to tracking eye motion.

There are some movies where puppets would work fine. I mean, Team America was not a particularly good movie, but it wasn’t because of the puppets. Unfortunately, for Beowulf, which is intended to be a fairly realistic action movie set in a fantasy world, puppets really don’t work at all. The animation was continually distracting. The monsters (Grendel and the dragon) were moderately successful, because we don’t know how such beings should move. But the movements of the human characters were consistently unconvincing. This time around, the facial close-ups worked pretty well–not perfect, but not distracting. But larger movements were really bad. Also the weights of the characters when they walked or ran were all wrong–it looked like they were walking on a trampoline or something, sort of like the characters in Shrek.

I don’t know why Zemeckis is so fond of this technology. The Lord of the Rings movies showed that you can do superb effects with live action filming, and Beowulf didn’t require anything as complicated as Lord of the Rings. Also, plenty of animation movies have showed that you can excellent story-telling without life-like motion. Zemeckis is presumably trying to make entertaining movies, not experiment with animation. It’s not even a tip of the hat to older techniques, like those stop-motion animals at the start of Return of the Jedi. So why does he do it, when he must see that it doesn’t work?

I saw Neil Gaiman speak a few months ago. He mentioned his screenplay for the movie. As I recall, he said that he was talking to Zemeckis about some other project, and Zemeckis mentioned that he was interested in doing Beowulf, but couldn’t see how to transition between Beowulf killing Grendel’s mother and then, 40 years later, facing the dragon. Gaiman said something like, “well, I would handle that transition like this” and described his idea. Zemeckis asked him to turn that into a screenplay, and he did.

And it is an interesting idea, and it could make a good short story, though as a story it would have to be handled sort of experimentally. And maybe it would have made a good movie, too, but unfortunately I guess we’ll never really know.

(Nathan reminded me to write about this when I saw his blog entry about the movie.)

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