Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence including Disturbing Images, some Sexual Material and Nudity
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: Neil Gaiman, Roger Avary
(based on the epic poem BEOWULF)
Starring: Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, Crispin Glover, John Malkovich, Brendan Gleeson, Robin Wright, Alison Lohman
Adapting the oldest known piece of English literature is a difficult task. This is made even more difficult by people taking creative liberties in order not to tell the same old story yet again. This version of BEOWULF was filmed in the motion capture style. The cast were in special suits with dots on their faces and then proceeded to act out the scenes on a blank stage. The character designs were then animated from the movements of the cast and the world around them was created by a group of animators. When examined as an exercise in style, BEOWULF is impressive on some levels and flawed on others.
In a time of magic and monsters, a young warrior travels to a distant kingdom in search of glory and gold. The man is named Beowulf and he’s taken the task of slaying the vicious demon Grendel. This is easier said than done, because Grendel’s a near indestructible creature and is not the only monster lurking in the kingdom. Beowulf carves out a reputation for himself and receives glory, but it’s at his own peril. His legend is sung throughout the lands, but Beowulf has a dark secret that comes back to haunt him in his old age.
From that brief synopsis, fans of the epic poem will notice changes to the source material. The original tale is a predecessor for things like LORD OF THE RINGS and the title character was a sort of medieval superhero. The movie stays true to the revered story for the first 45 minutes (the impending battle with Grendel). When Grendel’s mother surfaces is where things play out very differently. What was a poem of heroism, bravery, and conquering beasts turns into a cautionary tale about the flaws of men. While I don’t necessarily oppose this script entirely (as the original epic poem made Beowulf out to be a boastful braggart in places), it’s overly familiar in many respects. We’ve seen this type of movie many times before, so why turn a beloved fantasy epic into just another story about bad karma.
To add another cliché to the mix, there are a couple of dream sequences that conclude in the same way of Beowulf waking up screaming with a quick jump scare. It’s yet another laughable element thrown into a story that didn’t need these additions. Though seen through animation, the performances are visible (it’s the actors’ emotions on the characters’ faces after all). Anthony Hopkins gets a little too hammy as the drunken king and John Malkovich chews the scenery as Unferth. In some places, it sounds like Malkovich is eager to be done with this film to receive his paycheck. There’s either a hint of him reading lines from a script or putting too much inflection into his dialogue. On a lesser degree of over-acting is Ray Winstone as Beowulf. He flies from 0 to 60 in the volume of his voice in a millisecond. Winstone goes from restrained in his delivery (his more effective scenes) to wildly yelling at the top of his lungs.
Most of the animation is stunning. There are a couple of moments that look like a herky-jerky PlayStation 2 game, but those instances can be counted on one hand. The creature design of Grendel is very impressive. The poem wisely never tells you what he looks like and leaves it to the reader’s imagination to conjure up this monster’s image in their mind. I really dug the look of this demon, even if Crispin Glover gave an unneeded reason for him to be devouring the people (involving sensitive ears). The dragon is awesome as well, while Grendel’s mother is literally Angelina Jolie with gold covering her privates. The soundtrack is also really cool and gives the whole film an epic vibe, even with the flaws being very apparent.
My biggest complaints with BEOWULF can purely be leveled at the changes in the script. It almost like two different stories were combined into one. If you’re going to retell the epic poem in an appropriately epic fashion, then don’t blend a completely unnecessary and familiar thriller formula into it. There’s plenty of excitement to be had purely from a tale of warriors, dragons, and demons. The acting ranges from good to very over-the-top, just as the animation is awesome in some places and shaky in others. Taken on a pure spectacle level, BEOWULF is enjoyable. Taken as an epic fantasy that could possibly go down as a great adaptation of medieval literature, it’s iffy at best. Overall, BEOWULF is a decent film, but suffers from messy storytelling in front of and behind the camera.