"Beowulf" tells the age-old story about the hero who rides into town to defeat a inhuman beast, then its mother, and finally, late in life, a fearsome dragon which proves to be his final battle. Robert Zemeckis directs from a screenplay by Neil Gaiman ("Sandman," "Stardust") and Roger Avary ("Pulp Fiction").
First off, the screenplay by Gaiman and Avary takes a few liberties with the old text, making Beowulf something of a blow-hard, the struggle of Beowulf and Grendel's mother a different kind of tussle, and that fateful dragon becomes the issue of that liaison, just as Grendel is the product of an earlier assignation between Grendel's mother and Hrothgar. That ties it all very neatly together, and sets up a nice little "sins of the father" echo.
It also neatly dispels one of the problems I always had with the story (I first read it in a Scholastic Book Club edition) was that Beowulf maims Grendel, tearing off his arm, then marches off to dispatch Grendel's mother. Having done so, he marches back to the Mead Hall bearing the head of Grendel. Grendel? What about Mom? Since he's taking souvenirs, why doesn't he bring back her head? I mean he cut it off, did he lose it somewhere? Struck me as a bit of a disconnect, it did, and I went on with the story vaguely distracted by that point.
So Gaiman and Avary, citing that Beowulf is boastful, supposes that Beowulf didn't kill Grendel's Mom, but was seduced by her instead, thus the only trophy he could bring back, save for a "loathsome" disease, would be Grendel's head, and he just says he killed her. And that child is the dragon that King Beowulf fights to their mutual destruction.* As I said, tidy.
This is Zemeckis' second big motion-capture film after "The Polar Express," the "beloved" children's story made slightly creepy because all the characters look like those artists models, with resemblances of people plastered on them. One wishes to say that it's a "revolution" and all, but I'm still unimpressed, despite the thousand of person-hours involved to produce it. The landscapes and inanimate objects look great, but the people still have a clumsy way of walking and expressing themselves that takes you right out of the moment. The eyes seem all wrong, and the animation of the mouths when talking looks pinched and unconvincing, as if every character has had a few rounds of plastic surgery--the women in this are all unlined and Barbie-doll-ish. The characters played by Hopkins, Malkovich, Wright-Penn and Jolie all resemble the actors, which is also a bit of a distraction--they've done a lot of work to get Jolie "just so," but despite that there are instances where it looks like Jolie morphing into Jennifer Garner. ** But Ray Winstone, and Brendan Gleeson look like totally original characters that make them a bit more accesible. Generally, everything looks wonderful in dim-light scenes, but in the glare of daylight, the illusion falls apart.
A few other things bother, like the fight where Beowulf vows to fight Grendel naked (just to keep things even), and we are presented with object after object getting in the way of proving it. It was a running joke in "Austin Powers" and "The Simpsons Movie," but here, it's done completely straight-faced--which makes it all the more funny. The presentation of Angelina Jolie as Grendel's Mother makes the seductress role a little easier to see, but when she approaches Beowulf in all her "might-as-well-be-nakedness," there is a shot of her feet, which are cloven--but have spiked heels. Claws, yes. But spiked heels? Did Grendel's mother get the image to present herself from "Victoria's Secret?"*** Then, there's the problem that I'm seeing in more CGI movies--the "we're under a tough deadline, so let's make everything move really fast, so we don't have to do a lot of detail work" that shows up in such things as "Spiderman 3" and this film. Propulsive? Yes. Distinguishable? Not a bit. But it's easier to do a complex sequence if your make everything kind of a "smear." Finally, there's Crispin Glover as Grendel--one of those handful of roles you could say that Glover was BORN to play, but even here he's bizarrely strange--his words undecipherable, and his performance turned to "11." Like a lot of things in the film, it may produce unintended fits of giggling.
Also, this may be an animation film, but there is no way that a kid should go to this. There's a lot of gooey, icky violence, disturbing images, and nudge, nudge jokes that will have them in therapy within a week. Also, I didn't see the 3-D presentation of it--a lot of pointy things get stuck in your face in both versions--but I've been told the 3-D effects are, indeed, staggering and probably the most successful 3-D process yet produced.
I know a lot of things will stay with me--particularly the way Ray Winstone says: "Moi Nime is Baya-woof! An' Oi've cahm to kill yo' monstah"
"Beowulf" is a rental, by crom!* I'd cite some sort of "Spoiler Alert" here, but as it's the oldest manuscript in "British" literature, and was written around 1100 AD, you've had plenty of time to read it by now!!
** A trick not beyond Zemeckis, who in the space-warp segment of "Contact," morphed Jodie Foster's face with Jena Malone's, the actress who played the character as a child.
*** Want to know what's really wierd? You go to the web-site that has the Beowulf translation on it, and there are two google ads: one for "Olde English" and the other for "sexy pics" of Angelina Jolie. One has to wonder whether the film-makers have done more harm than good.