Animated to Death 

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In "Beowulf," director Robert Zemeckis ("Back to the Future," "Forrest Gump") takes another stab at the "performance capturing" technology he used in "The Polar Express," hoping to put some bounce into the grimly noble epic that has put many a college freshman off the idea of majoring in English.

The version under review here culminates in a spectacular sequence of dragon-hacking, but tethered to a tone-deaf script, the movie never strikes a balance between its flashy, state-of-the-art wizardry and the cold grandeur of its source. Although the word "wench" may go unuttered, most of the time this earthbound adaptation is hardly distinguishable from ye olde kitsch.

Whatever the merits of the computer-generated visuals on display, they probably could not be less appropriate to this particular story. If ever there were a poem that deals in the hard realities of bone and sinew, it is "Beowulf." Turning performers like Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich into shimmering presences may make them look more like characters in a video game (one based on the movie has already hit the shelves), but it also seems to absolve them from those liabilities of flesh and blood that are the stuff of, you know, tragedy. It's difficult to feel for those on-screen, even when they suffer amputation of their vaguely luminous members. After all, what's a few pixels, more or less? The luster and downright tidiness of the gore actually make one wish for a Mel Gibson to take this material in hand.

Then again, this is a revisionist "Beowulf," one playing fast and loose with the original. At a feast, we hear a bard reciting snatches of the epic, in Anglo-Saxon no less, but the movie treats its source as a snow job, slick public relations for Danish royalty. The poem that we know is concerned with such things as honor and the failure of even the greatest to secure lasting peace. But in the movie, the alleged heroes, from the seedy Hrothgar (Hopkins) to Beowulf himself, are already in hock to the devil. By putting the leads on the same moral plane as the monstrous Grendel (Crispin Glover) and his mother (Jolie), the film robs the story of its pathos.

As Beowulf, Ray Winstone is remarkable mostly for his physique. With his prissily sculpted abs and nice hairdo, he seems to have emerged from the pages of Men's Health. On the whole, Winstone's raw performance in Scorsese's "The Departed" presents a more compelling vision of pagan virtues and vices than does anything in this fest of sometimes-striking visual gimmickry. (PG-13) 154 min. S

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