‘Bollocks! Give me a gobble, then!’ This sample dialogue is typical of the many miscalculations made in Robert Zemeckis’ tediously protracted, mis-judged and puerile animated adaptation of ‘Beowulf’. It’s evident from the script – by British-born graphic novelist Neil Gaiman and Tarantino’s one-time collaborator Roger Avary – that it wasn’t the power and beauty of the language of our great eponymous, anonymous eighth-century Old English epic encomium that attracted the filmmakers. Nor, indeed, was it the work’s insight into pre-Anglo-Saxon history, as Anthony Hopkins’ Welsh-accented kinsmen and the snowbound mountain castles of table-flat Denmark bear eloquent witness. But even as a mere convenient launchpad for some vertiginous, 3D-assisted, man-on-beast heroics located in the eternally-adolescent gothic/fantasy/horror comic-book tradition, it seems an irrelevance.
Part of the problem is the animation technology itself. In re-animating the actors’ performances, ‘enhanced motion capture’ (the technique Zemeckis adopted with ‘The Polar Express’) makes of them creepier spectres than the creatures by which they are often surrounded. Thus, however gloopy and cadaverous the 20ft Grendel (voiced by ‘crazy’ Crispin Glover) appears or how unexpected we find the swoops of the fire-breathing dragon (non-Equity) and how bizarre the serpents-tailed Goldfinger babe presented by his protean mother (Angelina Jolie), none of them can compete with the sheer, unsettling oddity of the humans, with their milky-blind eyes. This applies especially to our hero, Beowulf, beneath whose glistening, highly sexualised , often naked rejuvenated body and bulging, leather-bound musculature lies the just-detectable face and movements of dear old Ray Winstone. The final, kinetic aerial battle scenes are eye-poppingly spectacular – especially in the 3D IMAX-version under review – but they come way too late to save the film.