Note: Beowulf is being shown in some theaters in either a 3-D or an IMAX 3-D format. This review is of the standard 2-D version that is playing in most theaters.
“Beowulf” has been the bane of many a high school and college student. While the piece of literature has endured through time, there are those who feel it’s less-than-accessible to the already overloaded learner. Despite the epic poem’s ability to make eyes roll, it has been turned into a major holiday movie by Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump). Working from a screenplay by graphic novelist Neil Gaiman and writer Roger Avery (Pulp Fiction), Zemeckis has created a computer-animated movie is that exciting, funny, sexy, and thrilling. Somehow I escaped ever having to read “Beowulf” despite having been an English major; while I can’t speak to how faithful it is to the source material, I do know that the film is incredibly entertaining.
Ray Winstone (The Departed) provides the voice and physical motions for Beowulf, a heroic warrior who, at the request of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), comes to the aid of a Danish kingdom that is being terrorized by the monster Grendel. The creature, which is truly one of the most loathsome things I’ve ever seen in a movie, is “played” by Crispin Glover. Grendel despises the sounds of music and laughter that echo from the town pub all the way to his cave, where his sensitive eardrums ripple in pain. To stop it, he likes to show up and begin ripping people in half or biting off their heads.
Beowulf takes on Grendel and eventually makes his way to the cave, where he encounters the beast’s mother (Angelina Jolie, CGI-nude the entire picture). She’s a water demon with a secret link to King Hrothgar. Grendel’s mom tempts Beowulf with carnal pleasures in exchange for sparing her life. Years later, he comes to regret his decision.
It is amazing that this movie is rated PG-13. There’s a lot of violence, some of it quite graphic, and almost as much nudity. (Beowulf is seen naked – from behind – as well.) If ever a movie somehow squeaked by with that less-restrictive rating, this would be it. There’s something admittedly odd about seeing such things in an animated format, which is usually the domain of kids’ movies. I kept expecting Shrek to walk through the frame.
Then again, the film’s adult qualities are precisely what I love about Beowulf. Like much of Japan’s popular anime, this film takes a style that is normally targeted toward children and proves that it can be just as effective in telling a grown-up story. Within the film, you will find sex and lust, violence and retribution, remorse and regret. Zemeckis never shies away from the mature parts of the story.
The dream of computer animators has long been to create photo-realistic depictions of humans. They’ve come close, but have never completely hit the mark. (Remember how the “dead eyes” of the people in The Polar Express freaked some kids out?) Beowulf represents the closest this dream has ever come to fruition. The animators have made the Anthony Hopkins character look like Anthony Hopkins and the Angelina Jolie character look like Angelina Jolie. So effective is their animation that, leading up to the film’s release, a lot of people have mistakenly assumed the movie was like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow - real actors performing against green screens with everything else added via computer later on.
That being the case, it’s easy to wonder why Robert Zemeckis didn’t just do a live-action/CGI combo to begin with. I think there are two reasons. The first is that he’s always been a very tech-savvy director whose current interest is the “motion capture” form of animation used in Polar Express and Monster House. (In motion capture, the body movements of the actors are fed into a computer and transferred to the characters.) The other reason is that he can use the animated format as a way to get action and camera angles that would never be possible live, or that would obviously be seamed together if real footage and CGI were melded. This is especially apparent in the climactic scene – a battle between Beowulf and a dragon, where we feel like we’re dangling from the flying beast’s tail right alongside the hero.
That’s a spectacular scene, and there are plenty more of them in Beowulf. Every Grendel attack is also thrilling. The creature has been designed as an oversized, deformed hulk who doesn’t seem to have any skin. He’s all veins and muscle and tissue. For me, Grendel stands as one of the most vivid movie characters in recent years. He also represents the incredible attention to detail Zemeckis and his animation team have given us. A whole world is created here, and a fascinating epic story takes place within it.
For all its lush animation and exciting action, Beowulf also has really interesting characters. I don’t want to give anything away, but there is an interesting dynamic between the hero and Queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn), especially in the second half of the film. Underlying this relationship is the idea that humans are fallible despite their best intentions. This is ultimately what the big screen version of Beowulf is all about, and its message is that what one does to right a wrong is the true definition of heroism.
The theme is conveyed with beauty, energy, and excitement, which makes this a genuinely cool moviegoing event.
( 1/2 out of four)
Beowulf is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sexual material and nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Beowulf
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