Viewers, 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.