Review: “Beowulf” (2007)

BeowulfViewers, leave your preconceived notions at the door: This isn’t your eighth-grade English lit teacher’s “Beowulf.” No, this “Beowulf,” a CGI-coated, action-packed visual spectacle of a film directed by Robert Zemeckis, has a wicked, sly sense of humor that surprises you. In fact, the double entendre-laden dialogue, the expertly-choreographed battle scenes and the over-the-top characters all feel like something straight out of a Monty Python film. Think of “Beowulf” as “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” for the CGI generation.

The film, of course, is based upon the Old English epic poem “Beowulf,” a distant, unpleasant memory for some (excluding yours truly, former English major). Set about 700 A.D., the film, like the poem, opens on the eighth-century Danish kingdom of aged King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), who has called his warriors to the mead hall for a celebration. All the mead-soaked merrymaking comes to an abrupt halt when hideous, shrieking monster Grendel (the ever-creepy Crispin Glover) starts snacking on the king’s guests. Hrothgar then issues a call for heroes to kill Grendel.Enter Beowulf (Ray Winstone, whose booming voice could — and probably has — incited on-the-spot battle cries), a valiant, boastful warrior from Geatland (part of Sweden), and what can accurately be described as his traveling “entourage” of coarse, mannerless warriors. The famed Geat accepts Hrothgar’s challenge as much for the reward as a chance to bed his lovely queen (Robin Wright Penn) and sets off a chain reaction of events that does not, at various turns, follow the legend.

But enough about the plot. The fun of “Beowulf” hides in the unexpected ways the plot unfolds. For starters, there’s the director’s decision to use “photorealistic animation,” which means the characters resemble real-life actors. It’s certainly a bold choice, since that animation style can look downright freaky and sometimes downright soulless and scary (“Polar Express,” anyone?). Here it’s been tweaked and improved to the point where the characters’ appearances are almost spot-on. Their expressions and eyes still aren’t quite there, still lack the spark of life that suggests humanity, but it’s close enough. (It’s even possible to see the faintest traces of Glover’s unusual features behind his Grendel getup, and Angelina Jolie is clearly recognizable as Grendel’s seductive mother.) And the animation, no doubt, injects “Beowulf” with the same kind of enchanting surrealism that’s made the film’s literary inspiration a perennial favorite on high school and college reading lists.

There’s another surprise in “Beowulf”: The film or, more accurately, the director has a biting sense of humor. (And this reviewer chooses to believe the laughs are intentional, not accidental.) Entire scenes are played for comic, satirical effect, and there are too many allusions to the Python troupe to be accidental. Consider the fight scene between Grendel and Beowulf, which should win some sort of award for Best Choreography or Best Use of Props to Conceal Exposed Private Parts. The reason? Beowulf is entirely naked, but every move, every prop is designed to prevent the audience from seeing what can’t be shown. Half the fun is figuring out what “cover” will be used next. The whole thing would be right at home in a Python sketch.

The characters’ speeches, too, are unexpectedly comical. Observe the scene where Beowulf and his right-hand warrior Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson) debate who will enter Grendel’s cave first. When Beowulf loses his arm in battle, his response recalls that of the Black Knight in “Holy Grail” (remember the “your arm’s off” exchange?). The humor makes “Beowulf” a rather surprising film, one that will make Old English lit scholars no doubt howl with displeasure. But see it with an open mind and it’s a thrilling, visually stunning experience you won’t soon forget.

Grade: B-

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9 Responses

  1. I hated this movie. I felt that the movie really only existed to explore the boundaries of motion capture — apparently they can create accurate butt cheeks and plenty of other things!

    • I could see your point — Zemeckis seems to have designed the movie for maximum “look at me” appeal. It’s very showy in that way. Still, I enjoyed it — possibly because I like the actors involved and possibly because of all the nods to Monty Python.

  2. I’d rather see the down & dirty live action film version Beowulf & Grendel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGlSAtb-SDw Beautifully-shot in Iceland, it’s a pretty compelling adaptation of the centuries-old tale. But of course it doesn’t quite have the same star-power as this one.

    • Was not aware of this one — will have to give it a looksee. Though I like this animated version, I always thought “Beowulf” would make a kickin’ action flick. I guess it did.

  3. In a lot of ways, motion capture is still in it’s infancy so just because the actor’s facial expressions are ‘Mo-capped” doesn’t keep them from looking odd and plastic-like.

    You’re right, this attempt it far better and more real looking than Polar Express’s characters (which was the problem with the first Shrek). I think we’re still a ways out from perfection…hopefully A Christmas Carol will develop it better.

    James Cameron’s Avatar is supposed to be the closest yet, but that remains to be seen.

  4. i really enjoyed Beowulf – it was fun and action-packed and it had Ray Winstone looking like Sean Bean shouting a lot. what more do you want from a film these days?

  5. The story was played out nicely enough, and the eerie build up to the climax was entertaining enough, but the main part of the story just lacked a life that it needed to connect the viewer. It opened some doors visually and gets kudos for trying something old and making it new, but in the end was just okay.

    • In truth I wouldn’t have minded seeing the real-life version with the same actors, and the good thing is that it wouldn’t take THAT much costuming and makeup to turn Crispin Glover into Grendel.

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