“I am the ripper, the terror, the slasher. I am the teeth in the darkness! The talons in the night! My name is strength! And lust! And power! I AM BEOWULF!” Well, ok then. If Zack Snyder’s 300 last spring only whetted your appetite for cartoonish sword-and-sandal epics featuring hyperstylized gore and naked men bellowing, you’re in luck. For now arises Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf, a rousing 3-D mo-capped glimpse into the future of filmmaking and the ancient past of storytelling. To be honest, it’s harder than usual for me to judge Beowulf on its own terms, since this was my first feature-length IMAX-3D experience (notwithstanding documentaries like Aliens of the Deep), so I can’t say if it’d have the same effect at your regular 2D cineplex. But, in three dimensions, Beowulf is pretty darned impressive, what with arrows, swords, and viking viscera flying in all directions…We’ve come a long way from Captain Eo. And, while the film is basically a pretty standard three-act summer action movie, I’ll give it points for daring to be both more bloody and more downbeat than your average animated fare. If you see one movie this Thanksgiving holiday, see No Country for Old Men…but, if you’re in the mood for it, Beowulf is well worth a look-see as well.
In late 5th century Scandinavia, as rumors of a new god, Christ Jesus, leak out of lands to the South, the Danes under the dissolute King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and his lovely Queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn) are just looking to have a good time. This they proceed to do in the manner of ancient peoples and Ren Faires immemorial, with ribald songs and lusty wenches, meat straight off the bone, and more mead than you can shake a spear at. But interrupting these hearty proceedings is an uninvited guest, an oozing, decaying nearby troll known as Grendel (Crispin Glover), who proceeds to wreck the mead hall, tear Danes limb from limb, and otherwise bring the party down. Seeking respite from Grendel’s gory visitations, King Hrothgar and his people need a Hero. They find one in the traveling Geat warrior Beowulf (Ray Winstone), who arrives via ship with his loyal lieutenant Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson) and a band of battle-tested scoundrels, all seeking honor and glory. Beowulf is tough, Beowulf is fearless, Beowulf is…a bit of a braggart, as deduced by one of the local noblemen (John Malkovich). But that’s beside the point, as, having enlisted under Hrothgar’s standard, mighty Beowulf must now confront the demon Grendel whether he likes it or not…as well as his more powerful, more alluring mother (Angelina Jolie), who has certain feminine wiles in her arsenal that our Hero may find harder to resist.
If you read, or were forced to read, Beowulf back in school days, you’ll quickly find that screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary have changed the story considerably — They’ve made it bawdier, they’ve completely rewritten the second and third acts, and they’ve emphasized the human fallibility of the characters rather than their epic heroism. (While I’m sure this is anathema to many, none of this bothered me very much, as I’ve actually never read Beowulf before…sad, I know.) Still, for what’s here, Beowulf works decently well, although a Faustian bargain is made at one point that doesn’t seem nearly as tragic and horrible as it’s made out to be. (Sure, regrets he’s had a few, but Beowulf seems to do pretty well by the deal, and you could argue he’s only undone once it is inadvertently broken, rather than as a consequence of consummating it in the first place.)
All that being said, in most eyes Beowulf is less likely to be judged for its capturing the nuances of the ancient poem than it is for its motion-capture, and here’s it’s going to be up to one’s personal aesthetics. Some reviewers are completely creeped out by the effect, but it didn’t bother me much at all. (The 3-D assuredly helped.) Sure, there were a few establishing shots — the viking ship, horses crossing a bridge — that screamed World of Warcraft cutscene, and the men, with their chiseled features and facial hair, still look more realistic than the women, whose faces often lack as much definition. But, all in all, I was rather impressed by the quality of the animation. And, besides, it’s animation — it was more important to me that Beowulf and Grendel seem part of the same world than that Beowulf looked exactly like someone I’d see at the deli. (And if this is what it takes to see Ray Winstone and Brendan Gleeson as the two leads in a buddy picture, so be it, although it still might be more fun to see them face off in a Sexy Beast II.)
So, yes, Beowulf is more a cartoonish action flick (see below) than a somber and faithful retelling of the epic poem. But, as far as cartoonish action flicks go, I thought it was pretty entertaining. (And if you have an IMAX 3-D theater near you, it’s pretty much a must-see.) And, while admittedly it may achieve nothing close to the heights of the original poem, I still admired the general sense of dread and melancholy at work through much of Beowulf. Even the greatest heroes in our canon, it seems, often have a failing for beauty and proud words.
Update: If you’re a first-time visitor arriving via The House Next Door today, welcome! (And, happy thanksgiving.) This way to the site’s front page, and down the hall on your left is the movie review archive. And, sorry, the turkey isn’t ready yet (unless you mean Southland Tales.)