The retelling of BEOWULF by Robert Zemeckis, Neil Gaiman, and Roger Avary stays true to the rip-snorting quality of it that has enthralled people for 1500 years or so, a few bored freshman English students at the mercy of teachers who couldn’t engage their enthusiasm notwithstanding. This computer-generated Beowulf is full of swagger, pride, and a gnarly sense of humor.
The action begins with a splendid feast in the mead hall of King Hrothgar, a mighty monarch with a young, unhappy wife and some interesting sartorial choices for someone living in a sub-arctic zone. The mead, for which he his renowned, flows freely, and eventually so do the drinking songs. It’s this last that irritates Grendel (Crispin Glover), the slimy and semi-decomposed monster who lives in the bottom of a swamp lake. He sets forth on a rampage that results in mayhem, death, and a closing down of the mead hall. Hrothgar offers half the gold in his kingdom to anyone who can kill the creature, and so Beowulf arrives. He’s full of boasts and tall tales and the wherewithal to back them all up.
The CGI is modeled on real actors, Ray Winstone as Beowulf, Anthony Hopkins as Hrothgar, the king on whose kingdom the monster Grendel preys. John Malkovich as Unfurth, the king’s sadistic and snide courtier, and Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother. The voice work is sublime, with Winstone’s measured roar the perfect expression of Beowulf’s bravado. Jolie’s voice is also impressive, whether speaking modern English or the antique version which she assays when speaking to Grendel, purring with the promise of Paradise when seducing Beowulf, and murmuring with the tenderness of a mother’s breaking heart as Grendel dies, and roaring just as lustily and just as menacingly as Winstone, if several octaves higher. Why the animators embellished Jolie’s nude rising from the lake waters with more than glimmers of gold that hearken to the other sort of treasure on offer to Beowulf is a puzzlement. As she walks across the water, stiletto heels are clearly visible. Not heels on shoes, mind you, her feet are as bare as the rest of her. No, her actual heels mimic the spikes of a pair of three-inch Manolo Blahniks.
The 3-D effects are nothing short of stunning, starting from the first frame with a waterfall slithering at what appears to be several feet from the screen. The effects whizzes are giddy with what they can do and between them, Zemeckis Gaiman and Avary, they find imaginative ways to show off the extra dimension, even if it becomes almost comical at times, sweeping back through the Danish countryside through seemingly endless trees and brambles. Then again, they also came up with smooth 360 shots that positively bristle with swords, spears, ship’s masts, and the pointier bits of dragons. Even a close-up circuit of a crown is darned impressive. Equally imaginative are all the ways they find to hide Beowulf’s manhood as he takes on the monster Grendel wearing nothing but his, ahem, swagger. Alas, and this is an alas that breaks my heart, they don’t quite manage to get the human beings right. Aside from there being something rubbery about the flesh, it’s like stop-action animation with an emphasis on the stop. There is something not quite in synch with the expressions, the movements are not quite right, and when they run, it’s an affront to the science of kinesiology. Don’t get me started on how downright silly a band of them galloping on horseback looks. They are more successful with Grendel, making him a poignant outcast acting out, albeit murderously, rather than something truly evil.
Getting beyond that, and it’s a very high hurdle to leap, kudos for the alterations to the story. I know, why tinker with a classic? And there is merit to that thinking, but the original audience for this saga, the one for whom dragons guarding buried gold, and beasties going bump in the night, is long gone and the point of the saga was to resonate for the listener. The rethinking of Grendel’s mother, originally a swamp-hag, into the form of a tempting, baby-hungry Angelina Jolie, and the kings of the piece as desperate for sons, is an interesting twist, bringing with it Freudian implications and other deep disturbances of the psyche that make for horror of a different, contemporary, and much more visceral type. That is brings in the concept of hubris, usually reserved for the Greeks, is a stretch, but provides a compelling through plot. There is also a nice touch in never directly showing Grendel’s mother in her true form. We see large, scaly claws cradling him, a sinuously twisting tail curling around him, but the face, wickedly awful, is only dimly seen in reflection, lurking like the id.
BEOWULF is big, bawdy and fast-paced enough to compensate for the animation ills with which it is afflicted. Sublime, ridiculous, and great tale to be told around the modern campfire of a movie screen.