-By Doris Toumarkine

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Robert Zemeckis successfully fiddled with new animation, motion-capture and 3D technologies with his Polar Express. Leaving R&D behind, the filmmaker has fashioned what amounts to a dazzling, immersive and unique visual experience with his latest project, Beowulf. A seamless hybrid of animation and live-action elements, the film mainly impresses as photorealism at its most realistic. Zemeckis and his team deliver lifelike facsimiles of live actors inhabiting and fighting on breathtaking landscapes and seascapes.

Great halls and cave dwellings are cavernous; ancient wooden ships must plow vast and stormy seas. The scale here is huge, dark and teeming with atmosphere and the whiff of myth and musty history. All the while, 3D projectiles keep coming at us: coins, spears, blood, viscera, fire, etc. And, oh, those battle scenes, most memorably the final airborne tangle between the hero and the giant flying monster.

While Beowulf offers spectacle in spades and has a nifty if old-fashioned story to tell, there’s that matter of dramatic engagement. Zemeckis sprinkles elements of bawdiness, sensuality and gore throughout, but will the characters engage and can the film, which will please the 300 crowds, cross over to the more demanding Gladiator fans? The paradox Beowulf presents is that while so many mind-blowing effects and spectacular settings and set-pieces command our attention, these new techniques and tricks also distance us from the characters.

The screenwriters lift these and the basic story arc from the original poem. Danish King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and his much younger wife Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn) lead a huge celebration of their latest war victory until the monster Grendel (Crispin Glover) pays a most unwelcome and violent visit. Soon after, Beowulf (Ray Winstone), accompanied by his men, including loyal sidekick Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson), ventures across the sea to help the King vanquish Grendel.

Skeptical of Beowulf’s boasts is Unferth (John Malkovich), a court scoundrel who seems, Shakespearean style, up to no good. But Hrothgar welcomes the help and offers Beowulf, who has been eyeing the King’s lovely young Queen, a beautiful dragon horn should he defeat the beast. Defeat he does, but now there’s Grendel’s mother (Angelina Jolie), a much more formidable monster, to contend with. Mom lives in a dark, waterlogged, cavernous cave and further distracts with her serpentine tail and irresistible sensuality.

Beowulf claims victory and the King’s trophy that goes with it. After the King jumps to his death in the sea far below the castle, Beowulf inherits his crown and all that goes with it. But years later, after more wars, there’s unrest at the castle. Beowulf’s marriage has gone cold, he’s cheating on the Queen, and Grendel’s mother returns.

Several of the characters, including the King, Grendel’s mother and Unferth, resemble the voices behind them. But Beowulf—blond, buff and über-Aryan—is unrecognizable as Ray Winstone. Still, the great voices are there and the characters—except for the monsters—look entirely live-action human.

But it’s the battle scenes and sweeping vistas of sixth-century Denmark that dominate. Thus, Beowulf begs the question: Will what was required reading for so many high-schoolers of past generations become required viewing not just for today’s younger film fans, but their elders too?

To tease the more demanding crowd, the film offers a flawed hero, as Beowulf, however brave and noble, can also lie, cheat and succumb to monsters of the sexy kind. And there’s also the film’s subtle anti-war message that blames mankind, forever bedeviled, for its endless wars.

One cannot escape the irony of the oldest surviving epic poem in the English language becoming the basis for the first full-blown theatrical experiment in digital 3D technology. The latest battle begins.

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