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Thursday, November 15, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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"Beowulf" | When Old English 101 meets PlayStation 2

Seattle Times movie critic

Opens late tonight

"Beowulf," with Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Robin Wright Penn. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, from a screenplay by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary. 114 minutes. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sexual material and nudity. Opens tonight after 9 p.m. at several theaters, including Cinerama. Showtimes.

If you've been grumbling lately that Hollywood doesn't make enough semi-animated Middle Ages epics featuring monsters who drool in 3-D, "Beowulf" just might be the movie for you. Grendel, a horrific creature whose appearance seems inspired by all those scary photos you see in dermatology textbooks, is the demon at its center, and the warrior Beowulf, who likes to coyly shuck off his chain mail and fight au naturel (always with a conveniently placed, ahem, sword), the brave mortal come to slay him.

Sound familiar? Yes, this is the Old English poem most of us read in high school and promptly forgot about. Director Robert Zemeckis, however, seems to have remembered it, and has reimagined it (with the help of screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary) as a showcase for the digitally enhanced live-action format he used in "The Polar Express." Essentially, actors give their performances before cameras, with numerous sensors attached to their faces and bodies. The captured performance goes into computers, where it is tweaked and twisted and doctored up in mysterious ways. Audiences watch the film in 3-D, donning plastic glasses and quizzical expressions.

The end result is a movie that looks sort of like live action, except that the characters look weird and walk funny. It's an odd tradeoff: Isn't the movie industry crawling with actors quite willing to look weird and walk funny for far less money than all those computers must cost? And didn't it dawn on Zemeckis that his film looks more than a little silly, which distracts from all that good-vs-evil gruesome battle action? Or that when you put Angelina Jolie into a movie like this, the audience immediately wonders what on earth Lara Croft is doing naked in a pool of water in ancient Denmark?

There's not much history here; just a lot of mead-swilling and belching (yes, apparently computers know how to do that) before the monster shows up and wreaks havoc, with Beowulf appearing shortly afterward. "We are geeks! I am Beowulf!" he announces grandly, and it's only due to some post-screening Wikipedia searching that I know that Beowulf was a Geat (a Germanic Swedish tribe), and that the line as I heard it was much funnier.

Beowulf is heroically voiced by Ray Winstone, a fine actor who bears little resemblance to the extremely buff and frequently naked warrior shown here. (In cineplexes around the country this weekend, in-the-know audience members will be murmuring sagely, "That's not Ray Winstone's butt.") Jolie's character, Grendel's scary/sexy mother, also scorns clothing, revealing a nifty pair of cloven stiletto heels that would be all the rage on a pre-medieval "Sex and the City."

There's nothing remotely like "Beowulf" in theaters at the moment, so Zemeckis and crew get points for originality. And it's certainly entertaining, though perhaps not entirely in the way intended; often due to the cast's thicket of accents. ("There shall be no singing or marinating of any kind!" thunders Anthony Hopkins' King Hrothgar to his people. Did he mean merrymaking, or was he just decreeing that everyone would eat dry meat and learn to like it?) Ultimately, "Beowulf" feels a lot like a video game blown up large: noise, action and funny walking intact.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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