Beowulf (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The legend of Beowulf, a mythical hero whose exploits were recounted in an 8th century epic poem, has gained unprecedented popularity some 1250 years after it was first told. With the success of The Lord of the Rings, which (along with the Harry Potter phenomenon) opened Hollywood's eyes to the potentially huge audience for big, bold fantasy movies, the inevitability of productions like this became established. Still, it's surprising that Beowulf has attracted so much attention, with three films released in recent years and another one on the way. Of all the cinematic variations on the theme, however, none is more ambitious and over-the-top than this one, the brainchild of director Robert Zemeckis and his screenwriters, Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman.

Beowulf is designed first and foremost as a visual spectacle of the first degree. Judged in those terms, it is a resounding success. Whether viewed in 3-D (the preferred way to experience it) or in a conventional theater, this is the sort of movie where the viewer can sit back and become immersed in the splendor of a wild, savage, colorful world. The movie opens up vistas previously undreamed of, providing viewers with a land that rivals the imagination-fueled panoramas of Middle Earth, Hogwarts, and 300's ancient Sparta. As eye candy goes, it's tough to find something more satisfying in theaters these days.

Beowulf is animated, but it employs what's commonly referred to as "photorealistic animation," which means that the characters in the movie look almost human. Their features resemble (to one degree or another) the actors who provide the voices. Zemeckis has used this technique before, in The Polar Express, but it still needs polishing. There's something a little eerie, bordering on unsettling, about seeing familiar faces rendered this way. There's no doubt that it gives the filmmakers unparalleled creative freedom - they can age characters without requiring makeup, allow modest performers to do "nude scenes" without taking off a stitch of clothing, and reduce the complexities of special effects that require the mixing of live-action and CGI. However, the human beings have a somewhat "waxy" look and their eyes, supposedly the windows to the soul, are more often dead than alive. An almost indefinable emotional element is thereby lost.

The story lacks neither scope nor complexity, relying on the ancient poem for its basic structure and embellishing shamelessly. Holes are plugged and new avenues explored. Attempts are made at character development, but they aren't entirely successful. While it's true that the Beowulf on screen during the final reel is not the same man we see at the beginning, this is not an individual we become emotionally attached to. Maybe it's because the visuals of Beowulf so resemble those of a top-flight computer game, but the film often feels more like something that's trying to bring an almost interactive experience to the big screen. Character identification - a key element of any complete motion picture experience - is limited in Beowulf.

The film opens in 6th century Denmark, in the mead hall of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins). As the warriors feast and get drunk and the king and his young queen (Robin Wright Penn) look on appreciatively, the revelry becomes more exuberant. That's when tragedy strikes. The ugly troll-like monster Grendel (Crispin Glover) breaks into the hall and begins a slaughter. When he is done, many of Hrothgar's men are dead and the king sends out a summons for heroes to face Grendel. He offers half his treasury as a reward. Beowulf (Ray Winstone), a great warrior from Greatland (part of Sweden), arrives to battle Grendel. Driven more by a lust for glory than a lust for gold, Beowulf boasts of what he will do to the monster. He doesn't have to wait long for the encounter. During his first night enjoying Hrothgar's hospitality, Beowulf's slumber is interrupted by Grendel's arrival.

Beowulf purists, and I'm sure there are such people, may be chagrined at the idea of a computer animated version of the tale penned by a noted fantasy/graphic novelist (Gaiman) and the co-creator of Pulp Fiction (Avary). However, while the movie diverts from the original text, it provides an explanation for the licenses it takes. The movie purports to be about the "true story" of the legend who inspired the poem. In fact, a portion of the epic tale is recited at one point during the movie, with a brooding Beowulf reflecting how it offers a departure from what really happened. As in the story, Beowulf battles three monsters: Grendel, the troll's mother (Angelina Jolie), and a dragon. The outcomes of those struggles do not necessarily mirror what one might expect based on the legend.

The film's content straddles the ratings boundary between PG-13 and R; had it been live action it probably would have garnered the latter, but the animated nature of the nudity and gore have allowed the producers to procure the more teen-friendly classification. Beowulf restricts the violence so there are limits to the blood and viscera shown being spilt. The nudity is coy. Grendel's mother is shown full frontal but she has no visible nipples. Beowulf is naked when battling Grendel; unlike Viggo Mortensen's similar activity in Eastern Promises, he manages to keep his privates hidden from the cameras with a precision that Austen Powers would envy. This way, the movie gets away with fooling viewers into thinking they have seen more than is actually on screen.

Beowulf delivers everything one could reasonably expect from it. It's the kind of film that will appeal immensely to the 300 audience, although it's not as visceral or as grandiose as the earlier production. Spectacle and high-wattage action interweave in the movie's two most impressive fight scenes: Beowulf's battle with Grendel and the soaring, dipping, weaving sequence with the dragon near the end. Zemeckis makes sure the camera takes in everything with a flourish. There are plenty of showy tracking shots and one could argue that the concept of a static camera is unknown to the filmmakers. We don't watch the action from a safe distance; we are put into it.

The actors are all well-chosen. Ray Winstone is bombastic enough and, via the magic of animation, he is de-aged and given a physique that Arnold Schwarzenegger would envy. Anthony Hopkins adds a little prestige to the production; it's always nice to have an Oscar winner in the cast. Angelina Jolie gets to shed a few years and grow a tail. Rumor has it that, while she didn't film her scenes in the nude, the animators referred back to some of her earlier efforts in the name of verisimilitude. Robin Wright Penn, Brendan Gleeson, and John Malkovich are on hand in supporting roles.

While Beowulf stands up reasonably well in a traditional theater, this is a motion picture that deserves to be seen in a 3D digital environment (if you can stand wearing those annoying glasses for two hours). The film was obviously designed with 3D in mind, and is opening in more than 700 such venues. The movie is also being released in IMAX 3D, but I have to wonder if that experience might be overwhelming. At any case, regardless of the medium, this is an effectively brutal story of swords, sorcery, demons, and heroes, with an Oedipal hint or two thrown in for flavor.

Beowulf (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2007-11-16
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1