Mark Reviews Movies

BEOWULF (2007)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Cast: Voices and/or performances of Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Robin Wright Penn, Brendan Gleeson, Crispin Glover, Alison Loman

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sexual material and nudity)

Running Time: 1:55

Release Date: 11/16/07

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Review by Mark Dujsik

It's no longer enough that a man kill a troll, its demon mother, and a dragon, so we have to take one of the oldest written English works and amp it up 20 or so notches. Beowulf, that epic, Old English poem, is re-imagined by screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, and teachers will freak out when they hear the changes and quietly chuckle a few years from now while reading their students' essays about the thematic significance Grendel's mother having an affair with the hero and his employer. The changes aren't problematic. After all, this story started out as oral tradition, and Gaiman and Avary are in a sense continuing it.

Some of those alterations work quite well, like the resulting contemplation on legend and fact that occurs in the final act, and others don't, like the underdeveloped attempt to humanize the hero, who is a nearly invincible warrior in this adaptation. Beowulf is directed by Robert Zemeckis, who uses the motion-capture animation process he used on The Polar Express, and while the previous movie was strangely creepy as a result, in this one the eeriness of slight shading between the real and the unreal suits it just fine.

It is 507 A.D. in Denmark, and King Hrothgar (voice and likeness of Anthony Hopkins) has opened a new great hall for his people. During the first night of celebration and chanting, the virtual camera pulls far, far back to reveal a cave, where the troll Grendel (voice but not likeness of Crispin Glover) is infuriated by the cacophony coming from the village. He bashes open the doors to the hall and, after a long, tense moment, strikes, killing many against the otherworldly blue glow of flame. Hrothgar offers half of the gold of his kingdom to anyone who can kill the beast, so from across the sea comes the Geat warrior Beowulf (voice and facial likeness of Ray Winstone).

He has come to kill the monster for glory, not gold, but Hrothgar also promises him a golden dragon horn to go along with the glory. Beowulf would prefer Hrothgar's wife Wealthow (voice and likeness of Robin Wright Penn), who also fancies the Germanic hero. Hrothgar's own hero Unferth (voice and semi-likeness of John Malkovich) is skeptical of Beowulf but, like the rest of the village, comes to admire him after the fight with Grendel. Problem is, there's also Grendel's mother (voice and uncanny likeness of Angelina Jolie) with whom to deal.

The first thing one notices is how spectacularly detailed the animation is. Hrothgar looks like Anthony Hopkins, but he also acts like him, right down to his facial gestures. Up close, Grendel's mother looks like Angelina Jolie was simply filmed, and the detail of stubble, pores, and scars is remarkable. Indeed, it's easy to overlook the forest for the trees in some of the film's slower scenes, but Zemeckis gets the scope of the action scenes as visceral as the tiniest details. Grendel's initial slaughter is bloody (You can tell where cuts were made to earn a PG-13 rating—expect an unrated version on DVD), exciting, and frightening.

It's with the introduction of the demon spawn that we can see Gaiman and Avary's manipulation of the source material. Grendel here is a monster, to be sure, but he's also a simple creature, acting out of self-preservation for the major annoyance to his eardrums (Our first glimpse of him has him mauling off his ear). There's a certain, mild sadness to the beast, about which Beowulf, of course, couldn't care less. He battles Grendel—once again that alone is not enough—in the nude (There's the obvious visual gag of perfectly placed candles and bodies to cover up his naughty bits).

The confrontation with Grendel's mother is more mysterious and sexual (She strokes his sword until it melts into a silvery goo—a visual metaphor if there ever was one), and the result of that face-off leads to the film's most intriguing thematic move. When the sins of the past come back to haunt the now king Beowulf, his second-in-command Wiglaf (voice and mild likeness of Brendan Gleeson) wonders why his commander has suspicions of the demon's possible influence. After all, Beowulf killed Grendel's mother; Wiglaf knows this because they sing of it every year on Christmas Eve (the inclusion of an evolving Christian influence on the culture is a clever historical and literary touch).

The nature of myth is suggested here, and it's certainly more effective than the forced attempts to turn Beowulf human in his relationship with Wealthow, whom the hero tells to remember him, "not as a king or hero, but as a man—fallible and flawed."  It misses the point of the original story and, more to the point, isn't developed within this version of the tale to work. Thankfully, all of this leads to a climactic fight with a dragon that has Beowulf riding the fell beast over cliffs, under water, and around his castle.

The screenplay bites off a bit more than it can chew thematically and wants to be deeper than it actually is (the open-ended final scene is effective but out of place), but Beowulf still has it where it counts. This is a visually rousing epic and a surprisingly effective reworking of a classic.

Note: Beowulf is being presented in certain theaters in 3-D, or Real D, as the new digital technology is called. In apparent compensation for only screening the film 4 days before it opened, Chicago critics were treated to the IMAX 3D version of the film, and the visual aesthetic of the format is massively more impressive than one might think, given 3-D's red and blue past. The way the character pop off from the flat, landscape backgrounds is particularly striking.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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