An examination of Wikipedia’s entry on “Beowulf” — I didn’t read it in high school, either — confirms what I suspected, which is that the new computer-animated movie version has added some details not found in the original. The 9th-century epic poem did not portray Grendel’s monstrous mother as a sleek, nude siren, for example, nor did the dragon, in its natural form, look like the Silver Surfer. Just so you know.
Approximately one-third of the theaters showing “Beowulf” will do so digitally and in 3-D. If you’re going to see it, that’s the way to go. Without the elements of crystal-clear digital projection and awe-inspiring 3-D animation, the film doesn’t have much going for it. To see it in a traditional 2-D, 35-millimeter format would be like having someone hum a Beethoven symphony for you. You’d get the idea, but you wouldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.
Even under ideal circumstances, the fuss about the film should be restrained. Robert Zemeckis, fascinated with the motion-capture technology he used in “The Polar Express,” has taken advantage of the latest developments for “Beowulf,” and the action scenes are suitably spectacular. Yet the technology still can’t make people’s eyes look anything other than dead and soulless, and facial expressions still aren’t realistically fluid. They’re not even as good as the characters’ faces are in Pixar films.
The story … well, “Beowulf” is famous for being really old, not for being really brilliant. Set in Denmark in 507 (presumably so it can be exactly 1,500 years ago), the film has a village terrorized by a monster called Grendel (voice of Crispin Glover). The king, Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), a drunken old wretch, has been unable to stop it. And so the mighty warrior Beowulf (Ray Winstone), internationally renowned for his fighting prowess, arrives to save the day!
We know that’s why he’s here because the first thing he says is, “I am Beowulf. And I am here to kill your monster.” I’m pretty sure that’s not in the original, either.
As it turns out, Beowulf is kind of a douchebag. His catchphrase is “I am Beowulf!” He likes to yell it during battles. In a flashback where he fights sea monsters, he trims it down to just “BEOWULLLLLFFF!,” hollered apropos of nothing. It reminds me of Will Ferrell’s impersonation of Robert Goulet, blurting out “Goulet!” at random intervals.
Beowulf is also his own biggest fan, bragging constantly about his feats and exaggerating them as necessary. He has this thing where he likes to be naked, ostensibly to level the playing field between himself and the weapon-less, unclothed Grendel, but also apparently because he wants to show off his computer-generated abs to King Hrothgar’s hot wife, Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn). The nudity leads to unintentional hilarity when he fights Grendel and Zemeckis must resort to Austin Powers-style devices to prevent Beowulf’s genitalia from being visible to the audience — a well-placed candlestick here, a mug of mead there, etc.
Grendel’s mother is voiced by Angelia Jolie, and looks quite a bit like her. It turns out Grendel’s not even really her son. She just found him in a Cambodian orphanage and took him home.
Thank you! I’ll be here all century.
English majors will recall that there are three major battles in the story: one with Grendel (who is rendered with astonishingly creepy detail and realism), one with his mom, and one with a dragon. All of these are epic and thrilling. It’s the in-between scenes — the talking, the arguing, the waiting around — that fall a little flat, often spiced up with silly 3-D gimmickry. (Ooh, look, the sword is pointing right at us!! Fifty years of 3-D movies and we’re still doing this?) This is a great-looking movie that doesn’t have much depth to it. Which makes it a little like Beowulf himself, actually.
C+ (1 hr., 55 min.; )