At what point does a film become a fun-fair ride? That’s one of the questions posed by Beowulf, the terrifically entertaining new film by Robert Zemeckis that uses performance capture and 3D technology to make a visceral impact on the senses.

When King Hrothgar’s (Anthony Hopkins) 6th century Danish kingdom is threatened by a bizarre bloodthirsty monster (Crispin Glover) he turns to the legendary hero Beowulf (Ray Winstone) to take on both the creature and its seductive demon mother (Angelina Jolie).

Based on an ancient epic poem, the film has been given an accessible working-over by cult graphic-novel writer Neil Gaiman and Pulp Fiction’s Roger Avary. Not having read the original obscure work I can’t vouch for the film’s faithfulness to the poem, but the result is a rip-roaring over-the-top experience that’s already a box-office hit in the US.

In Beowulf, the actors’ physical performances have been captured by a computer which in essence redraws them into photo-realistic animated characters. While in some cases the characters’ looks are entirely imaginary (chubby 50-something actor Ray Winstone is reborn as a buff blonde stud) others appear remarkably like the original performers (the sexy demon mother looks uncannily like Angelina Jolie). It can be a little unsettling: At times it all looks overwhelmingly realistic while at others the animation becomes very apparent.

Look out for Beowulf fighting entirely naked in his first battle against the monster, complete with lingering shots of his muscled body (although any views of his nether regions are conveniently blocked by well placed objects – ala Austin Powers). It seems pretty gratuitous, but I’m not complaining. I’ll admit however that it’s rather odd to feel hints of desire for an on-screen persona that doesn’t physically exist – not even off-screen.

The animators also went to town on Angelina Jolie’s eerily seductive simulacrum (which spends all its screen time in the buff) making the Demon Mother the most immaculately rendered of all the characters.

The overall effect of the performance capture animation is remarkable; giving Beowulf a stylized and very unique pseudo-realism that ultimately looks gorgeously rich and lush.

The film’s biggest triumph is in its use of a new 3D technology – one that produces the most impressive 3D effects I’ve ever seen in a film. Yes, ridiculous special glasses are still a requirement – they’re given to you when you enter the cinema – but these no longer use red and green lenses like in days of old. (Remember to take them off after leaving the theatre or you risk being ridiculed.)

There are moments when the filmmakers’ choice of camera angle or movement is obviously gimmicky: Meant no doubt to make the best use of the 3D illusion but this often throws the audience out of the rhythm of the story. It’s here where you might wonder if you’re watching a film or engaging in a game or some kind of ride. Despite this, Beowulf maintains sufficient integrity in its storytelling and performances to still be enjoyed in a traditional cinema.

Sadly, it is in a traditional cinema where most audiences in South Africa will see the film. While it has opened in the US on around 1000 3D screens we have been treated to only two such theaters: at Gateway in Umhlanga, Durban and at The Zone in Rosebank, Johannesburg.

I would strongly recommend that you make the effort to see Beowulf in 3D if at all possible. It will clearly illustrate why so many in Hollywood are looking to this technology to stave off the threat of DVD and online pirating and draw people back into cinemas.

Beowulf both aims to re-invent the spectacle of cinema and to entertain with a well-crafted story. And it largely succeeds with aplomb. Could this be the future of filmmaking? Watch this space…

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