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What have they done to Beowulf, everyone’s least favorite Old English epic about a hero’s battles with a monster, the monster’s mother and an annoying dragon who turns up 50 years later?
Director Robert Zemeckis not only deploys 21st century movie technology at its finest to turn the heroic poem into a vibrant, nerve-tingling piece of pop culture, but his film actually makes sense of Beowulf. In Zemeckis‘ hands, it’s an intriguing look at a hero as a flawed human being.
Remember in Annie Hall when Woody Allen advised Diane Keaton, “Just don’t take any class where you have to read ‘Beowulf'”? As multitudes stand in long lines to see this movie, many may indeed be reading “Beowulf,” if only to relish what Zemeckis & Co. have accomplished. In any event, those lines should last through year’s end.
There are two sets of heroes here. One is the writing team of author/graphic novelist Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary (the nearly forgotten other writer of Pulp Fiction). They have genuinely solved the structural problem of the poem, written around 700 A.D. The link between the early battles of a young hero and his fatal confrontation with the dragon as an aging king is his temptation by the monster’s mother who dangles wealth, power and sexual favors before his bedazzled eyes. Makes sense — Beowulf’s sins come back to haunt him.
The other heroes are Zemeckis’ “performance capture” and 3-D animation teams, who digitally enhance the bare-bones live action into a beguiling other world brimming with vitality. This new technique, which Zemeckis broke ground with in the visually impressive though dramatically weak The Polar Express, comes to full fruition in Beowulf, where myth becomes vigorous flesh.
Beowulf tells of a young warrior, Beowulf (Ray Winstone), who emerges out of a raging storm in a Viking ship to rescue a Danish kingdom ruled by old King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and his beauteous queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn). The monster Grendel (Crispin Glover), angered by the noise of singing and drinking in Hrothgar’s great hall, has butchered many warriors.
Grendel is a thing of horrific beauty. He looks like a mummy with a contagious disease. He’s a slobbering, puss-filled, bloody, drooling, hideously deformed giant with a lop-sided face and rotting teeth that can barely chew a man’s head.
Knowing no weapon will defeat this monster, Beowulf sheds his clothes and waits for the next attack. In an epic battle, Beowulf rips off Grendel’s arm. The now whimpering bully limps home to his mother’s lair to die.
Grendel’s mother (Angelina Jolie) takes revenge by attacking the hall following a night of celebration. She strings up the corpses of all of Beowulf’s men save for his trusted lieutenant, Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson).
Presented a sword by Unferth (John Malkovich), who initially doubted Beowulf’s resolve, Beowulf enters the mother’s grotto with its eerie lake. But rather than battle Beowulf, the mother sets out to seduce him, as she did Hrothgar years before.
Zemeckis is not afraid to indulge in moments of camp. Jolie’s golden and nude temptress with a devil’s tail strides toward her adversary in high heels! Grendel’s whimpering about the Big Bad Man who tore off his arm reveals a pathetic mama’s boy. The hero’s constant assertion “I am Beowulf!” and Wiglaf’s equally frequent refrain “You are Beowulf!” cry out for a Saturday Night Live skit.
But here lies Zemeckis’ keen pop sensibility. He means to avoid Woody Allen’s Beowulf by tapping into both the Lord of the Rings crowd and Knocked Up enthusiasts. The gruesome violence and male and female near nudity — about as bold as a PG-13 rating will allow — mixed together with ribald humor make Beowulf a waggish bit of postmodern fun. It may raise the eyebrows of English Lit professors but will quicken the pulse of everyone else.
Beowulf will roll out in the largest 3-D release of any film to date, including Imax 3D. While 2-D prints will certainly play well, Zemeckis has brilliantly designed the movie for 3-D, creating a strong depth of field and action in the fore, middle and back grounds in his more complex shots. Figures do blur slightly with heavy action or quick camera pans, but audiences will experience total immersion into the world of Beowulf best in 3-D.
Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. present in association with Shangri-La Entertainment an ImageMovers production
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenwriters: Neil Gaiman, Roger Avary
Producers: Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis, Jack Rapke
Executive producers: Martin Shafer, Roger Avary, Neil Gaiman
Director of photography: Robert Presley
Production designer: Doug Chiang
Music: Alan Silvestri
Costume designer: Gabriella Pescucci
Editor: Jeremiah O’Driscoll
Beowulf: Ray Winstone
King Hrothgar: Anthony Hopkins
Queen Wealthow: Robin Wright Penn
Wiglaf: Brendan Gleeson
Grendel: Crispin Glover
Grendel’s mother: Angelina Jolie
Running time — 115 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13
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