(CNN) -- History is repeating itself. More than 50 years ago, Hollywood embraced big-screen formats (CinemaScope, VistaVision) and 3-D to protect the movie business from television. Now, with the box office under threat from at-home viewing, industry watchers have noted spectacular returns for features released on the large-screen IMAX circuit.
Beowulf takes on the monster Grendel -- and then has to face Grendel's mother.
So, though it's also going out in conventional theaters, there's no question that Robert Zemeckis envisaged his CGI-animated epic "Beowulf" for IMAX 3-D. (Zemeckis knows the value of IMAX -- the format's biggest feature-film hit is his 2004 film "The Polar Express.") When it comes to riding a golden fire-breathing dragon into a blizzard of oncoming arrows, a bootleg on your desktop just isn't going to cut it.
"Beowulf," the original action-adventure yarn -- it's the oldest epic narrative verse written in the English language, dating back to the eighth century -- has been spiked with enough risque business and healthy splatterings of gore to make it unsuitable for kids (the rating is PG-13). But it's a full-on feast for the rest of us: exciting and even exhilarating at times, with considerably more shading than the bloody "300."
There's precious little poetry in this free adaptation by screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, but their sharp spin on the story puts a psychological face on the ancient fable.
The story concerns the title warrior, who arrives in Denmark in the year 507 to do battle with Grendel, a giant, pustulant, suppurating demon that terrifies the Danish court whenever they're in their mead cups, which is often. Beowulf is voiced by Ray Winstone, whose motion-captured alter ego is a buff blonde who looks more like the young Sean Bean.
If there's something irritatingly cocky about a Geat who strips naked to fight a supernatural being on equal terms (Zemeckis goes to "Austin Powers" lengths to hide Beowulf's manhood), his adversary is a curiously sympathetic figure resembling a refugee from Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds exhibition.
Sure, Grendel has an anger management problem, but then he is stuck with appallingly noisy neighbors, egged on by a beer-bellied Dionysus, King Hrothgar, the demon's own dad (Anthony Hopkins, whose paunch is one 3-D effect too many).
Beowulf wins this bout, but hasn't reckoned on tackling the monster's mum (Angelina Jolie, also semi-tastefully au naturel).
If there's something perverse about assembling a cast like this (Brendan Gleeson, John Malkovich and Robin Wright Penn are also on duty) only to coat them in a kind of cosmetic digital wax, the actors' personalities do come through, and the facial rendering is less creepily plastic than in "Polar Express." In as much as Beowulf himself is capable of nuance -- doubt, shame, regret, as well as courage -- it's there on screen, right along with his rippling biceps and his nasal hair. Only the dull and robotic eyes give the game away.
So is this the future of cinema?
"Beowulf" is an excellent showcase for the advantages of computer-generated animation. When Grendel's mother emerges from the slime as the delicately airbrushed Angelina, her feet are cloven stilettos and her long ponytail curves behind like a dragon's tail. It's quite a costume. (And if La Jolie isn't feeling quite so pretty one day, presumably her motion-controlled simulacrum could extend her prime for as long as audiences care to watch.)
As with traditional animation, if the economics are right, CG seems a good fit for larger-than-life stories: comic book adaptations, sci-fi, horror and myth. It's a significant chunk of the market.
But don't bet on the 3-D portion of the equation staying the course. It's fun to see the Paramount logo and feel like you could start climbing that mountain, but after we've been poked and prodded by spears and swords, escaped falling masonry, admired heaving bosoms and plunged into icy depths, the novelty becomes a distraction. The glasses have improved, but not enough. They're still an encumbrance, and you get ghosting and blurring along with your lap dance.
And, oddly, 3-D's biggest flaw is false perspective. Too often figures stick out against the landscape like cardboard cutouts in a pop-up book. In a pagan spectacle like "Beowulf," that can be passed of as part and parcel of the pageantry; but in the hands of a less skillful storyteller, it could soon become a pain in the (flat) behind.
But "Beowulf" mostly delivers on its promise. Expect long queues at specialized screens, and more exhibitors jumping on the technology in time for James Cameron's "Avatar" in 2009.
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