Paramount Previews Beowulf at Comic-Con

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Wednesday night is the official preview night at Comic-Con International in San Diego and usually nothing much happens, but Paramount Pictures took the term seriously by kicking things off early with a preview of their 3D computer animated feature Beowulf, directed by Robert Zemeckis (The Polar Express). Screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary showed up at the Horton Plaza United Artists to introduce the 20-minute preview from the film, essentially the 2nd reel, debut the trailer and a special Comic-Con teaser, all in 3D using the Real D technology, as well as answering questions from the audience.

Having seen the Icelandic live action feature Beowulf & Grendel last year, I was well aware of the problems with doing the classic Anglo-Saxon epic as a live action feature. (The production values of that film, starring Gerard Butler and Sarah Polley, were so bad that it was hard to enjoy). Zemeckis was going to try to get around it by using the same performance capture as he used on The Polar Express with actor Ray Winstone playing the role of Beowulf, Crispin Glover voicing the creature Grendel, Anthony Hopkins as Danish King Hrothgar and Angelina Jolie as the voice of Grendel’s mother.

Gaiman and Avary came out to introduce the footage and after a bit of debate what to show first, they showed the trailer which presumably is the same one that’s now online with a spooky voice-over by Angelina Jolie using the same accent she used in Oliver Stone’s Alexander. (Okay, that’s probably not the comparison Paramount wants to be made, so I won’t mention that Anthony Hopkins was in that, too.)

Avary said that he remembered studying the poem in school and he wanted to “make it easier for future generations,” then the two writers gave a quick rundown of what happened in the first reel, about how the Danish people had been plagued by the creature Grendel who had been dragging men down to the caves, and King Hrothgar doesn’t know what to do until the warrior Beowulf shows up with his mean to vanquish the beast. The arrogant warrior decides to face the beast unencumbered by armor so he strips down to nothing. (Brings new meaning to the saying “pen is mightier than the sword” eh?)

The footage begins at the end of Beowulf’s battle with Grendel as the warrior is holding the creature’s arm through a door and he violently slams it, severing Grendel’s arm at the shoulder, then throwing it to the floor where it spasms in a pool of blood. Beowulf is indeed naked with strategic placement of people and objects to cover his genitals, and everyone cheers “Hail Beowulf! Hail Beowulf!” for his victory. It seemed very Spartan in tone, if you know what I mean. We then cut to a scene of the King in his bedchambers being told of the monster’s defeat. His blonde young queen (voiced by Robin Wright Penn) is also there and they talk a bit, as he reminds her that she really needs to give him a child soon. (This is what Danish royalty calls “foreplay.”)

Meanwhile, Grendel drags his body to the cliffs of the Danish fjords and throws himself over the edge into the water where we see the hands of his sea creature mother cradling the body and saying a few soothing words. Grendel really doesn’t look anything like I would have imagined, misshapen and more than a bit like Gollum from “Lord of the Rings” if he’d been in the ring with Jake LaMotta for a few rounds. I’m sure it’ll be an interesting character when we see him in his prime earlier in the movie, because Crispin Glover should be able to sell the creature’s tragic nature.

Later, the camera pans across the hall where Beowulf and his men are sleeping (not all of them by themselves) and Beowulf is woken by the young Queen who is trying to convince him to father her child. Being the loyal and dedicated warrior that he is, he asks about the king and she claims he’s dead. She mounts on top of him and then her face gets closer and changes into a demon creature with lots of sharp teeth as Beowulf wakes up for real to find out that his men are all dead and hanging from the rafters of the hall.

He confronts Hrothgar, who says that while Beowulf may have vanquished Grendel, the creature’s mother, who he thought had left, must have returned and was probably responsible for killing his men. Beowulf makes a smarmy remark about having to take on Grendel’s father, uncle and other family members, but the King says that the father won’t be a problem. (Anyone who knows the poem should understand why he said this, but we won’t spoil it here for those whose only interest in English literature involves film adaptations of same.)

Beowulf and his right-hand man (voiced by Brendan Gleeson) arrive at the cave where Grendel’s mother is supposed to dwell, and Beowulf enters the cave (this time wearing underwear at least) to avenge the deaths by killing the creature, carrying a golden horn that shines in the darkness, as that thing with the long spiky tail slinks around the shadows of the cave. (You can see some of this in the trailer.) Beowulf continues into the cave and finds what remains of Grendel, essentially a head and body that looks like a fetus. Something falls into the water behind him and that tail emerges followed by a face that peers out of water…and it looks just like Angelina Jolie! And as the body rises from the water, we see that she’s naked and made of gold!! (And she has problems finding men to sire a child?) The tail is actually an extension of her hair, although one has to assume that this is a body she’s spelled up for herself using magic to make herself more appealing to men. She gives a speech similar to the one in the trailer and comes closer to Beowulf, trying to seduce him because she wants to have another child to replace Grendel (who’s clearly dead—she severs his head from what’s left of the body and drops it into the water). She caresses Beowulf’s sword and it melts as if it’s made of mercury.

My thoughts on what we saw: The animation looked great and had evolved exponentially from that of The Polar Express, so it looks far more realistic, and the use of “camerawork” and lighting is as good or better than some of the best special FX movies, but it’s still kind of odd seeing some characters looking a lot like the real actors (in the case of Jolie/Hopkins) and others looking rather stiff like a video game character, which is the case with Beowulf and the Queen. The Real D was fairly non-intrusive, adding more dimension to the animation without being used gratuitously; I’m assuming it will look amazing in IMAX 3D. One has to assume that not everything is 100% finished yet, but I personally think it’ll be hard to sell an animated film for adults.

Gaiman and Avary returned for a brief Q ‘n’ A, giving the reasons for doing it animated and using performance capture, as well as the reasons for retaining the likenesses of some of the actors but not others. In terms of Ray Winstone—you might remember him as the robust sunbathing figure at the beginning of Sexy Beast–they didn’t just want to give him a better physique but also have him play both the young Beowulf and the older one. They also felt that their original script was probably cost-prohibitive, particularly the climactic battle with a dragon later in the story, but when Zemeckis came on board and decided to do it with animation, he said that they could do anything they wanted.

Avary explained why he wanted to write the movie, having been a fan of Ridley Scott’s Legend and John Boorman’s Excalibur and for a while, he was actually going to direct the movie, even though that might have been one of the hindrances for getting the film financed. The duo talked a bit about their collaborative writing process, having met when Avary had been commissioned by Warner Bros. to write and direct a movie based on The Sandman movie (but then fired) and they started working together when Avary reached an impasse on the script and asked Gaiman for advice. The two then went down to Mexico for a few days to work on the first draft of the script. That was ten years ago and it took that long before Zemeckis finally agreed to direct and it was fast-tracked.

Gaiman talked about the process of making the film, “digitally-enhanced acting” which he compared to “watching the cast of Tron performing Shakespeare in the Round”, referring to the blue sensor-covered suits we’ve seen Andy Serkis on the DVD extras of the “Lord of the Rings” movies.

What’s odd is that when we got to the screening, someone from Paramount was saying that the movie was going to be a hard R and the blood and partial nudity we saw seemed to confirm that, but Avary and Gaiman seemed to think they would be going for a PG-13, and that what we were shown might not be the final cut if they have any problems with the MPAA.

They wrapped things up by showing a teaser produced for Comic-Con that quickly cut together images from the trailer and sweeping shots of the Danish landscapes to a hard rock track. It’s fairly short, but it’s pretty obvious that they’re trying to recapture the magic of the 300 teaser shown at Comic-Con last year, but knowing the source material of both films, it’s going to be hard to get teen males interested in Beowulf because it involves so much talking and mysticism.

Beowulf opens on November 16, 2007 in traditional theatres, IMAX 3D, Real D and Dolby 3D.

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