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''Beowulf'': High stakes for a 3-D epic

Director Robert Zemeckis kicks off a wave of digitally animated epics, with Ray Winstone as a warrior and Angelina Jolie as the sexiest swamp thing ever. James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, and Peter Jackson are watching…

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Ray Winstone, Beowulf

One evening last July, screenwriter Roger Avary walked out of a Comic-Con screening of footage from his latest movie and found himself unable to slip back into reality. The world of the film, rendered in eye-popping 3-D, had seemed so all-encompassing that, getting into his car to drive home, he had trouble shaking it off. ”I probably shouldn’t have been behind the wheel,” he says. ”I felt like I was coming off of an acid trip.”

What was the film that had so messed with the head of the Pulp Fiction co-writer? Some mind-bending sci-fi flick? Actually, it was an adaptation of a 3,183-line Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse poem supposedly written by Christian monks over 1,000 years ago — a literary work so notoriously impenetrable that Woody Allen advised Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, ”Don’t take any course where they make you read Beowulf.” A touchstone for fantasy writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf is the story of a Scandinavian warrior who saves King Hrothgar’s people from a marauding monster named Grendel. Now it’s been transformed into a 21st-century popcorn extravaganza with all the high-tech fixings. The film, directed by Robert Zemeckis, utilizes motion-capture technology to transform live action into digital animation, a technique pioneered by director Peter Jackson with Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and further developed by Zemeckis in The Polar Express. Throw in Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s fierce, slitheringly sexy mother — and as much blood and gore as a PG-13 rating can bear — and it’s clear this is not your father’s Beowulf. Or your great-great-great-great-grandfather’s, either. ”Watching this thing is like walking around in a graphic novel,” says Beowulf co-writer Neil Gaiman, who, as a preeminent graphic novelist (The Sandman), should know.

Following on the heels of the $211 million sleeper 300, Beowulf seems poised for success with a similar blend of ancient setting and effects wizardry. (It will be released simultaneously in 2-D and 3-D.) But whereas 300 used live actors, complete with rippling abs, Beowulf features no flesh-and-blood stars at all — just digital replicas, which in Polar Express were criticized for appearing a bit dead-eyed. (Judging from footage EW has seen, vast improvements have been made.) With a budget of $150 million — more than double that of 300 — the film is a hefty risk for Paramount and financier Steve Bing. It must appeal to more than just 13-year-old comic-book fans in order to succeed at the box office. ”For a young audience, this is the world they live in,” says Paramount’s president of marketing and worldwide distribution Rob Moore. ”The challenge is getting the older audience.”

NEXT PAGE: ”Bob said, ‘There’s nothing you can write that I can’t film.’ Suddenly, I’m writing a battle where Beowulf is fighting a dragon under the sea — all the kind of cool stuff we couldn’t have done before.”