By Christopher Campbell
While I should have been a good cineaste and watched some Oscar-worthy documentaries or some Sundance-originating indies, I saw two mainstream movies this week. One was this past weekend’s box office winner, "Beowulf"; the other was "Enchanted", which will surely be the Thanksgiving weekend champion. I found neither of them to be very remarkable in terms of storytelling, but each does have some significance to cinema, and each is noteworthy for its respective blurring of animation and live-action.
Obviously, "Beowulf" is animated. It is so far considered eligible for the Animated Feature Oscar, and aside from its few bits of photorealism, it looks like a cartoon (or a video game). But because the movie was made with real-life actors, who were “performance-captured”, there is still that link to live-action filmmaking. And there was hardly much reason, in my opinion, why it necessarily had to be made as an animated film. Meanwhile, "Enchanted" is primarily live-action, but it does have some bookending animated sequences, which figure into the gimmicky plot of a 2D Disney Princess who magically finds herself in the 3-dimensional world of New York City. But it probably could have been fine as a completely animated film — maybe it could have been the "Wizard of Oz" of computer animation (as in 2D to 3D animation rather than black and white to color film). As it is, the “real-life” parts of "Enchanted" seem too artificial anyway.
So, not that either movie needs to justify it’s medium, but why were "Beowulf" and "Enchanted" made in the style in which they were? Nevermind that this is neither the first time we’ve seen the digital 3D technology nor the first time we’ve seen the gimmick of an animated character becoming live-action. Nothing about these two movies is actually innovative or memorable. My guess is that, as usual, it’s all about reaching the widest audience possible. This isn’t so much a complaint, though, since we have to expect nothing else from Hollywood; I’m just looking to point out how it’s benefiting or hurting each movie.
"Beowulf" has few shots that truly utilize the creative allowances of animation — even if most of the movie does look nice; but if much of the violent battle sequences had been live-action, I bet the film would have received an R rating. With the PG-13 that it instead received, more kids and families likely went to see it. Was it worth it, though? Considering the $150 million budget and the disappointing opening worldwide box office of less than $50 million, it appears not. Of course in live-action, the movie would have still been expensive to produce and without the appeal of the 3D gimmick (yes, gimmick), it probably would have earned even less.
"Enchanted," on the other hand, should actually do huge business due to its medium choice. The movie as told does depend on its clash of 2D animation and live-action, but Disney could have just as well made another old-fashioned animated fairy tale instead. But aside from the fact the studio wants to parody itself in the way other animated films ("Shrek"; "Happily N’Ever After") already have, Disney also seems to be acknowledging that few people go to those antiquated 2D films anymore, and certainly no teens or 20-somethings on dates would see "Enchanted" if it was fully animated. By going live-action and having the benefit of casting “Dr. McDreamy” (Patrick Dempsey), the movie now appeals to an audience that isn’t just kids and families. Plus, it probably cost a lot less (it looks pretty cheap) than a fully animated film.