Dir: Robert Zemeckis. US. 2007. 114mins.
Beowulf may be the oldest surviving poem in what was to become the English language but the heroic epic about a courageous Viking who slays a monster and then battles the monster's mother is now best-known as the adventure story that no one can seem to make into a respectable movie. The new 3-D animated Beowulf by Robert Zemeckis reaffirms that persistent stigma.
Audiences who already endured any of the previous attempts at filming Beowulf won't be rushing out to witness another try, although the chance to see an animated Angelina Jolie as a shapely sea monster may lure the testosterone youth to this one. Zemeckis's fans, not being as Beowulf-wary as the rest of the general public, could rally for his version of the tale, and the tech-savvy crowd may come out of curiosity to see the epic in high-budget
The script for Zemeckis's twist on the Beowulf story by the novelist Neil Gaiman (Sandman) and Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction) presupposes that the epic poem preserved in manuscript by monks was censored in the process. So the writers have poured on the blood and leavened the lean poem with bawdy talk and plenty of earthy lust among the medieval Danish swains and wenches who live in fear of the monster Grendel.
Zemeckis's use of 'performance capture' animation introduced in his The Polar Express (2004) gives the film a more realistic look than other cartoony styles, encouraging the audience to expect believability in the characters. Yet the 'human' scenes, in which Beowulf (spoken by Winstone) shows self-doubt and the beautiful quee Wealthow (Wright Penn) expresses affection for him, tend to bookend arias of violence of monsters mutilating Danes and biting off human heads. This is not a film where character development gets in the way of a bloodbath or wild effect. The heroic (and mock-heroic) acting style feeds the mood, whether we're hearing the voice of Winstone (Beowulf), John Malkovich (Unferth), Anthony Hopkins (Hrothgar, the king), Crispin Glover (Grendel) or Angelina Jolie (Grendel's mother).
Jolie's character, Beowulf's version of Zemeckis's 1988 siren, Jessica Rabbit (from Who Framed Roger Rabbit'), is certainly the most ingeniously imagined, seductive in a gold body, complete with a prehensile braid like the stinger of a queen bee. It's brazenly phallic. Grendel is oozingly grotesque and Glover (in Anglo-Saxon) finds the vocal effects that fit his vile ogre. Winstone sounds (and Beowulf looks) a lot like a character from the World Wrestling Federation, which is about right for the stylized fighting.
Visually, the ambitious virtuosic film rarely rises above the level of a video game with heightened verisimilitude, although the 3-D effects can be a dazzling novelty. They are best in the battle between Beowulf and his winged-dragon son - born after Beowulf visits Grendel's mother's watery lair. Sequences of the dragon flying through canyons with Beowulf hanging by a rope are genuinely vertiginous. For once, the battle landscape delivers the drama of a live action war scene. Earlier, when Beowulf surrenders to the charms of Grendel's mother (Jolie), there isn't much tenderness in the animated tryst, but the sexual energy does come through.
Some of the film's best moments come from slapstick humour amid the carnage. When Grendel attacks, Beowulf resolves to fight his adversary in the nude, and tears off his clothes. In the extended battle scene, everything imaginable is placed in front of the warrior so the audience won't see his private parts. What the public will see, however, are high mountains surrounding King Hrothgar's lodge, an odd addition to the flat landscape of Denmark.
The film-makers seem to have been after an animated blend of Gladiator, 300 and The Lord Of The Rings - after all, JRR Tolkien reintroduced Beowulf to 20th century readers. Somehow the lure of Beowulf survives. Zemeckis's film probably won't be the last.
Paramount Pictures (US)
Shangri-La Entertainment (US)
Main voice cast
Robin Wright Penn