The promise of Beowulf 3D

Beowulf 3D

Let me be up front: Beowulf 3D is a fantasy cartoon that looks like a video game cut scene when viewed in two dimensions. Yet, somehow, when I went to see it this past weekend in digital 3D, I was both entertained by it and thrilled by the possibilities it implicitly promises.

That's not to say it is a flawless movie -- the plot moves in spurts, shallow characters fill the screen, and some of the animation tumbles into the uncanny valley. But I appreciated the Neil Gaiman/Roger Avary screenplay, which was enjoyably tongue-in-cheek (Beowulf battles Grendel entirely nude) and managed to turn a meandering poem into a somewhat coherent fantasy.

Still, it wasn't the traditional filmic elements that motivated me to write this post. In that regard, Beowulf is an average Hollywood movie and I wouldn't recommend viewing it in non-2D 35mm. But as the only fantasy movie I've ever seen entirely in 3D, Beowulf is the first to capture what I enjoyed about reading fantasy as a teenager -- and yes, that includes Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Let me be clear: I love Tolkien's fantasy work, and I still remember very clearly re-reading the end of the mortality-themed LOTR -- for the first time as an adult -- on a 14-hour plane flight two months after 9/11. While I enjoyed much of Jackson's trilogy and found it to be a sincere adaptation, I don't think he capture the heart of the LOTR trilogy -- i.e., Tolkien's themes about mortality and industrialization. Ultimately, I appreciated Jackson's trilogy as a well-made series of action films that only occasionally captured the feel of Tolkien. (I will admit, however, that it was almost completely successful in capturing the look.) Nevertheless, I found something inherently silly in watching respectable actors in fantasy costumes and speaking fantasy dialog. (Salon clearly disagrees with me re: Beowulf vs. LOTR.)

Zemeckis had a much easier job with Beowulf -- while I fondly remember reading the epic poem in high school, my memories are more about the subject matter (monsters, mead, etc.) and wonderful names (Grendel, Hrothgar, Hrunting) rather than the plot/theme specifics. I remember hearing my English teacher play a recording of an Old English reading as well, and I was pleased to hear a bit of that language in the film. So what I'm saying is that when watching Beowulf, I didn't have the same baggage and expectations as I did watching the LOTR trilogy.

Now I can meander to my main point: I was able to enjoy Beowulf as schlocky fantasy -- similar to the Dragonlance books I read in my childhood -- because of the cartoonish look and 3D presentation. The cartoonish look distanced me from any thought about the conflict between fantasy and reality, and the 3D presentation allowed me to view the film as I had imagined fantasy books in the past. After the film ended, I realized that I probably would have enjoyed the LOTR trilogy more if it had been made similarly -- not because it would've looked cooler, but because I would have had an easier time suspending my disbelief. And more, I hope the success of Beowulf leads to other famous fantasy books being adapted to 3D film. The medium simply suits the material.

Tue, 11/20/2007 - 12:41pm