Beowulf (2007) / Adventure-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, disturbing images, some sexual material and nudity
Running time: 113 min.
Cast (voices): Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, Robin Wright Penn, John Malkovich, Brendan Gleeson, Crispin Glover, Alison Lohman
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay: Neil Gaiman, Roger Avary
Review published November 19, 2007
Based on the classic 8th Century epic poem of Old English times, Beowulf serves as yet another modern interpretation of the fantasy adventure, with oodles of phallic symbolism, gory battles and hedonism galore (well, as much as one could get in and still hold on to a PG-13 rating). Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away, What Lies Beneath) returns to his motion capture gimmick here, similar to that which he introduced us to in Polar Express although with much more realistic rendering of the computer generated characters, resembling their real-life counterparts with uncanny precision.
The script for the film, which boasts two writers with cultish followings, Neil Gaiman (Stardust, Mirrormask) and Roger Avary (The Rules of Attraction, Pulp Fiction), had been in the works for almost a decade, finally coming to fruition with one of the more visually stunning films you're ever likely to see. While it may seem a bit on the overdone side for fans of the poem, as well as relatively unfaithful, it should nevertheless delight those who enjoy a good, hearty fantasy done with plenty of action and visual splendor.
In this cinematic telling, the legendary warrior Beowulf (voiced and acted in motion capture by Ray Winstone, The Departed) is brought in and implored for assistance from the goodly King Hrothgar (Hopkins, Fracture) in order to battle the dreaded and physically powerful demon named Grendel (Glover, Epic Movie), who has been tearing up the people of Heorot mercilessly for some time now. Beowulf eventually consents, taking on the vicious attacker with an impressive display, but discovers that Grendel is only the warrior and not the one truly in charge, as his mother (Jolie, The Good Shepherd) is a powerful goddess of magic who has the power to seduce Beowulf in ways that sheer brute force has never quite been able. An unholy alliance is formed, but not without the price of one's soul, and it soon becomes apparent that, yet again, something's rotten in the state of Heotor.
All things said, the text of "Beowulf" would prove nearly impossible to craft into a commercial motion picture if it were to adhere to complete slavish adaptation, as those great early epic stories, born from oral tradition, weren't exactly rife with depth of characters or motivations. Although a vaunted classic for its time, it's not the sort of story that really grips the very entertainment savvy audiences of today, as it can be very straightforward and simple to the point of redundancy at times. Gaiman and Avary do make their characters multifaceted, particularly in the case of Beowulf himself, who seemed much more as a superman figure in the original text than the very flawed character we are presented in the film.
Beowulf, while certainly a marvel of computer-aided design, and entertaining from a purely cinematic standpoint, is not a blow-you-away masterpiece. If there is a downside, it's a significant one that will either not bother you or make it wholly unpalatable, and that is that it is somewhat lacking a certain grandeur and the gripping tension that a live action epic would be able to foster, despite the realistic replications. Although Zemeckis does manage to craft as true-to-life a wholly 3D animated action flick as one can with current technology, there is still something cold, synthetic and lifeless to the look of the characters, as their eyes seem ever distant and their expressions eerily passionless. This is one case where it might have been a better choice for Zemeckis to revisit another one of his classics, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, to mix real-life actors with computer animated environs and monsters, even if it wouldn't distinguish itself from many other fantasy films to come out in the last decade.
If you enjoy rip-roaring adventures and dark fantasy spectacles, Beowulf certainly earns an easy recommendation, as it delivers more than enough action, intrigue and other-worldly elements to generate a sense of excitement from a purely escapist outlook to justify the money and time spent to watch it. For lovers of ancient literature, it doesn't come close to supplanting the baser pleasures of the original text, but from a modern standpoint, it does make for an interesting contrast in narrative elements to show how times have changed in terms of what audiences find appealing. Interesting that this umpteenth telling of the "Beowulf" epic would have no physical human presence, and yet still be the most humanizing version of these characters to date.
©2007 Vince Leo