Seeing Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf, I was reminded of the time when director John Frankenheimer came down to the University of Southern California in 1962 to show All Fall Down. During the Q&A session which followed, a student asked why he had used an elaborate tracking shot in the opening sequence. Frankenheimer replied simply that he did it because he could; after all, he pointed out that as a director in live television dramas, such shots would have been extremely difficult or impossible. I suspect that if the same question were asked of Zemeckis about the wild zoom and traveling shots in Beowulf, his answer might be much the same, except he would substitute live-action films for live TV.
And if I had to focus on Beowulf’s greatest failing, it would certainly be its self-conscious use of not only dizzying camera moves, but also its ridiculously exaggerated camera angles and perspectives. I must assume Zemeckis is a fundamentalist who believes that you should only do in animation what you absolutely cannot do in live action, whether it makes sense of not. (Orson Welles seemed to take a similar approach viz-à-viz the theater and radio when he made Citizen Kane.) This sort of thing is further aggravated by the film’s in-your-face use of stereoscopic 3D.
This is unfortunate since Zemeckis has shown, in films like Forest Gump, that he is more than just a competent filmmaker and the script for Beowulf is not as bad as his direction makes it seem. The tale, nominally based on the classic Early English poem, of how Geatsman Beowulf rescues Denmark by slaying the monster Grendel (above) and eventually becomes king, does not really need to hide behind all the film’s cinematic pyrotechnics. And in terms of subject matter, it deals with topics many in animation have long been hoping Hollywood would tackle in animated movies.
The motion capture animation, a technique that causes much of the animation blogosphere to foam at the mouth, is generally acceptable, despite the vacuous nature of some of the characters’ expressions. It is no secret that one of the attractions of motion capture to directors like Zemeckis is that they see it as a less threatening way to do animation; performance capture animation, which is is their preferred terminology, has enough similarities to live-action to make it comfortable. However, in the process he seems to have forgotten how to make a decent film; in comparison, Happy Feet, another motion capture effort from a live-action director (George Miller of Mad Max and Babe fame), is a masterpiece.
Now I’m more curious than ever to see Grendel, Grendel, Grendel, Alexander Stitt’s 1981 Australian animated version of John Gardner’s novel, which tells the story from the monster’s point of view.