A film review by Craig J. Koban




Rank: # 4



2007, PG-13, 112 mins.

Beowulf: Ray Winstone / Hrothgar: Anthony Hopkins / Unferth: John Malkovich / Wiglaf: Brendan Gleeson / Grendel: Crispin Glover / Grendel's mother: Angelina Jolie

Directed by Robert Zemeckis /  Written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary.

Robert Zemeckis’ BEOWULF is an audacious, stunning and miraculous achievement.  If it is not the most astonishing and awesome CG animated venture on the silver screen, then I certainly don’t know what is.  BEOWULF makes no apologies for its artifice.  It looks towards cutting edge and state of the art computer graphics and does not feebly utilize them: it commands and channels them.

There have certainly been other animated films that have used CG technology (FINAL FANTASY predates BEOWULF by several years, as does Zemeckis’ own magnificent THE POLAR EXPRESS), but the effect in BEOWULF achieves a whole other quantum leap forward in terms of the verisimilitude of the animation.  Whereas characters looked stiff and somewhat zombified in FINAL FANTASY, the figures in Zemeckis’ film breathe with so much more subtlety and nuance.

The level of detail and fluent motion to the characters is as eerie as it is gorgeous to look at.  Yes, the humans in BEOWULF don’t look 100 per cent real, but nitpickers that make redundant criticisms like that miss the point altogether: this is a work of pure, audio-visual escapism that tries to transport us.  The CG work here is critical to the film’s success.  Since everything is artificial, it gives the story and legend in the film a level of otherworldly gravitas.  This is the kind of movie that deserves and maintains our attention and interest, not our scorn of its techniques.

Nevertheless, the central debate among film goers and critics is this: Why could they have not done it live action?  That, in my mind, is the height of short-sidedness.  Why not look at a Picasso or Monet painting and say, "Gee, could they not paint this more...realistically?"  The point here is that BEOWULF is made with premeditated stylistic and aesthetic choices.  The film never professes to be real, per se, but on a whole other plane of existence.  That’s why Zemeckis’ use of a special type of motion capture known as digital enhanced live action (where actors are filmed  wearing special suits that capture their motion in a computer and are then augmented with CGI) works so marvelously.  As an out-of-body spectacle for the eyes, there is not one dull or uninspired moment in the film.

The film, of course, is both faithfully and loosely based on an Old English heroic epic poem of anonymous authorship from around 700 AD.  As a work of exhaustive length (3183 lines), the poem deserves the moniker of being mammoth.  It chronicles the hero of Geats, Beowulf, as he battles three adversaries at various times in his life: The monster Grendel, his equally monstrous mother, and an unnamed dragon.

The poem has had countless influences.  J.R.R. Tolkien studied it feverously and many of its themes and mystical concepts saw the light of day in his LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy.  There have also been several film adaptations of varying success, the most recent being BEOWULF AND GRENDEL, a largely forgettable film directed by an Islandic-Canadian, Sturla Gunnarsson.  Now comes Zemeckis’ vision, which appropriates the original text for his own needs.  The screenplay is attributed to Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman, the former being an Academy Award winner for co-writing PULP FICTION, the latter a noteworthy graphic novelist. 

The film captures the essence of the poem while not being slavish to it.  It certainly deals with Beowulf’s battles with the three demonic creatures, but it takes some dramatic liberties in the telling of those stories.  That does not really matter, because BEOWULF works by getting the poem’s essence and texture.  Furthermore, no promise is made here of being a literary and thematically complex tale: This is an adrenaline pumping, action fantasy spectacle, and unabashedly so.

The film begins in Denmark in the 6th Century and we are introduced to King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and his much younger queen (Robin Wright Penn) as they feast and celebrate alongside their warriors.  As they party erupts with an inebriated and hedonistic intensity, something absolutely dreadful occurs.  The horrendously malformed and disgusting monster named Grendel (Crispin Glover, the same one that played George McFly in Zemeckis’s first BACK TO THE FUTURE film) attacks the lodge and slaughters just about everyone in one of the film’s many incredibly mounted action set pieces.

As a result, Hrothar decides to put out notice that he is recruiting brave souls to find and kill the monster, with a bountiful treasure as a reward.  Enter Beowulf (Ray Winstone, who cheerfully joins 300's Gerald Butler in giving 2007's best performance of commanding bravado and teeth clenching machismo), a self anointed magnificent warrior from Greatland that arrives in the nick of time with his men to take up the King’s challenge.  He is joined by his loyal partner in arms, Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson).

Beowulf, to put it bluntly, has balls  Not only that, but he has a cocky arrogance about his might.  The manner with which he speaks of himself is the height of self-hero worship ("I am the ripper! The terror! The slasher! I am the teeth in the darkness! The talons in the night! My name is strength and lust and power! I am Beowulf!!!").  Yet, he is a boastful man that can actually back up his boasts with his utterly fearless and boundless intensity and courage.  He knows the carnage that Grendel achieved, and in a move of pure nerve, he shreds all of his armor and clothes and demands that he fight him, man to beast, with nothing but his brawn.  Of course, this is a PG-13 fantasy, so we are spared of glimpsing Beowulf’s CG genitalia in battle, which are humorously covered, ala AUSTIN POWERS, by conveniently timed camera moves.  Alongside Viggo Mortenson in EASTERN PROMISES, Beowulf’s battle with Grendel is the second best nude brawl in a movie this year.

After Beowulf thoroughly defeats Grendel, all believe that peace is restored, that is until Beowulf realizes that he must confront Grendel’s mighty p’oed mommy (played by a very naked Angelina Jolie, whose physical assets clearly would outmatch and distract a warrior of Beowulf’s tenacity).  After an altercation with her, the film jump cuts into the future where we see an much older Beowulf, now king, as he prepares to battle what appears to be a new and unstoppable offspring of Grendel’s mother.

Before I discuss the film’s look, some comment needs to be made about the performances, which are all surprisingly good.  The actor’s certainly shine through their pixalized forms.  Hopkins has a field day playing the boisterous king and some of the other supporting performances, especially by Penn and Gleeson, have a sort of low-key, melancholic energy.  Crispin Clover, who obviously looks nothing like the towering Grendel, is wickedly inspired, as is Jolie, who plays her highly eroticized and sinful creation to proper, over-the-top exuberance.  And then there’s Winstone, who has been de-aged and given a Herculean body, complete with a six pack (he looks like a cross between Russell Crowe and Stone Cold Steve Austin) who never forgets to play Beowulf with the right amount of fist and bicep pumping testosterone.

Again, the film is animated, but Zemeckis’ direction is nevertheless powerful.  His camera moves as smoothly and effortlessly as it would in a live action film, yet some shots would have been impossible to achieve for real.  Grendel’s first reveal is done in a virtuoso camera move that leaves the King’s castle and flies out into the country and all the way to Grendel’s lair, all in one unbroken take that spans miles.  The battles between Beowulf and Grendel and later with his sibling are rollicking and awesome.  As an action fiesta, BEOWULF never disappoints.  Some of the smaller moments in the film also astound, as is the case with the film’s niftiest time transition/flash forward that deserves legitimate comparisons to the niftiest flash forward trick ever in CITIZEN KANE.

There is not one single moment of the film where you don’t feel your attention distracted from the screen.  BEOWULF is a masterpiece of audience involvement in the way it elicits our attentiveness in its visuals.  There is always something invigorating and intoxicating on screen and there is rarely a second where the film is not visually arresting.  I found Zemeckis’ THE POLAR EXPRESS to be one of the most beautiful and lavish CG features ever, and I wrote in my review how one became less and less conscious of its techniques and instead grew more immersed in them, eventually forgetting that you were watching animation.  Ever more so, I felt similar feelings throughout BEOWULF.  No other film this year works as well as this one by working on you.

The film cheerfully careens down the extreme borders of the PG-13 and defies them.  This has to be the harshest film under that rating category that I have seen.  How the MPAA allowed BEOWULF the freedom of a PG-13 and not an R is absolutely stupefying, considering the extreme content.  Throughout it we are given copious amounts of nudity - from both the female and male variety (this is an equal opportunist eye candy flick) - intense and scary visuals, not to mention ubiquitous violence and gory carnage.  Surely, there is not a lot of blood splattering, but there are scenes involving multiple stabbings, impalings, lacerations, maimings, decapitations, heads of the decapitated victims being chewed on and eaten by the viscous monster, and so on and so on.

The film’s latent sexual content is also kind of startling.  Its most talked about moment occurs when the synthetic Jolie emerges from cavernous waters completely in the buff (only a tiny and transparent amount of mud and goo hide her naughty bits).  Some critics have stated that - with BEOWULF’S violence and nudity - a PG-13 is appropriate considering that everything in it is "not real" and is animated.  That’s ridiculous.  If the film had a graphic, simulated sex scene in it would it still bare the moniker of a PG-13 because the sex...is not real? Certainly, there are a plethora of live action films with sex and eroticism, but the content in those films are also not real - they’re counterfeit and faked- so what is the difference?  BEOWULF’s rating, in pure hindsight, is pure hypocrisy.  Trust me: this is not a children’s animated film.

My indifference with the MPAA aside, BEOWULF is an wondrous and electrifying accomplishment in the arena of computer animated films.  Zemeckis, it can easily be said, is a director that is a visionary and a pioneer.  He looks at technology, embraces it, and dares to do what others would not.  He had the perseverance to competently blend live action with hand drawn animation in the then landmark WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT and later convincingly made Tom Hanks look like he was conversing with real life historical figures in archival footage in FORREST GUMP.  Of course, then came THE POLAR EXPRESS, which I hailed as a breakthrough work for animated films the same way STAR WARS was one for special effects.

I found myself in a state of disbelieving admiration for THE POLAR EXPRESS, and I amazingly find myself reacting with even more wonderment with BEOWULF.  It’s been a long, long time since I stared at the screen with a complete, childlike enthusiasm and awestruck captivation.  I did so with films like STAR WARS and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, which, for their times,  boldly told viewers that the future of film making technology to tell stories was "now".  BEOWULF attains the same level of ethereal power as a watershed entertainment.  It does what all of the trendsetting films of the past have achieved: It intrepidly looks into the frontier of film making methods and technology and fearlessly passes it.

In short, Beowulf would have approved.

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