10 "Failures" By Famous Directors (That Are Actually Better Than You Remember)
Robert Zemeckis had arguably been one of the most consistently accomplished American "entertainers", with titles like Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Forrest Gump on his resume; he had always been interested in/obsessed with pushing technological boundaries, whether it be combining Tom Hanks with real historical figures or Bob Hoskins with a cartoon rabbit, but it was always at the service of crackerjack stories (seriously, Back to the Future is pretty much the model of a perfectly structured screenplay) and engaging characters. But then in the early 2000s, Zemeckis became -- rather inexplicably, it seemed to almost everyone -- enamored of a new technique, motion capture technology, which allowed for a kind of combination of live action and animation techniques. One could understand the fascination -- motion capture theoretically allowed photorealistic characters to do all sorts of unrealistic things, resulting in greater freedom for the director -- while lamenting the results -- motion capture resulted in dead eyed characters doing all sorts of ludicrous, physics defying things, shattering any suspension of disbelief. Zemeckis' Polar Express in 2004 was charming, and if the characters looked a little dead eyed, one figured the bugs would quickly get worked out...but this turned out not to be the case, as Zemeckis' next two pictures, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, featured similarly plastic looking characters. Those two flopped at the box office, saving us (thank God!) the spectacle of a Zemeckis directed motion capture remake of Yellow Submarine, and Zemeckis has hopefully returned to the land of the living with 2012's Flight, a solid live action drama starring Denzel Washington. Beowulf is perhaps the most decried of Zemeckis' motion capture "trilogy"; Polar Express received a "mixed to positive" reaction from critics and audiences, and Christmas Carol seems to have been more or less ignored/forgotten, but Beowulf was pretty much hated as soon as it was released, a big, clunky swing at a fantasy epic in an era when the Lord of the Rings trilogy had shown how these kinds of movies could finally be done right. Beowulf's characters were inexplicably somehow even less convincing than the ones in Polar Express (why do Ray Winstone and Robin Wright Penn come off as less emotive than Princess Fiona in Shrek?!); the film had weird, jarring tonal shifts, shoving together ancient myth with flat out slapstick (Beowulf's fight with Grendel is staged like an Austin Powers style "convenient objects hide his junk" sequence). It's long, it's turgid, and it takes an awfully long time for anything of much interest to happen; no wonder most of the press for the film focused on whether or not Angelina Jolie's character could technically be considered "naked", since she basically wears no clothes but her dirty bits are covered. Which is unfortunate, because there are some legitimately interesting thematic and dramatic ideas in Zemeckis' Beowulf -- most of them, unfortunately, not introduced until the third act, when most of the audience is asleep. A scene where Beowulf taunts a would be assassin ("You want your name in the Song of Beowulf? You think it should end with me killed by some Frisian raider with no name?") almost feels like the beginning of another, much better movie, about an old warrior who has become a king and a hero but who has built his legend on a tower of lies, who has betrayed many of the principles he claimed to represent, who is as weak a man as he is strong a warrior. If you can actually make it through the film's interminable first hour -- with its repetitive action set pieces that Peter Jackson did much better -- you might find that there's a surprisingly nuanced and intelligent critique of the myth of the hero hidden in Beowulf, in between all the dopy 3D gimmicks and animated Angelina Jolie near-nudity.
C.B. Jacobson pops up at What Culture every once in a while, and almost without fail manages to embarrass the site with his clumsy writing. When he's not here, he's making movies, or writing about them at http://buddypuddle.blogspot.com.