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BEOWULF

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn, John Malkovich, Brendan Gleeson, Crispin Glover, Angelina Jolie
Director:  Robert Zemeckis
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  114 Minutes
Release Date:  February 26, 2008

“I am Beowulf, and I’m here to kill your monster.”

Film ***

One of my favorite lines in Annie Hall is when Woody Allen advises Diane Keaton on adult college classes:  “Just don’t take any course where they make you read Beowulf.

I didn’t take the Woodman’s advice myself…in college, I was forced to read the notorious epic poem, which has been the nightmare of many an English student.  Nobody knows for sure when it was written or who penned it.  It was the accumulation of years of oral tradition.  It was filled with story gaps that were hard to navigate.  Yet it’s considered the first heroic epic, and probably inspired countless others, including the tales of King Arthur.

That being said, Robert Zemeckis has managed to turn this infamous grade-killer into a computer animated adventure that’s so overdosing on testosterone, you can’t help but be entertained by it.  Beowulf is visually marvelous, and with the right sense of humor, easy to embrace.

To call it short on subtlety is barely to begin.  When we open on a royal party in Denmark, the faithful subjects of King Hrothgar (Hopkins) are gorging, belching, boozing and whoring like it was an Olympic event.  When the demonic Grendel (Glover, but man, doesn’t he look a lot like John McCain?) shows up, he’s not just any monster…he’s a giant, deformed beast with terrible claws that literally rips people in two or bites off their heads and drinks their blood. 

In comes Beowulf (Winstone), across the sea through a horrific storm with a troupe of men seeking glory by killing Grendel.  And Beowulf is no ordinary hero…ripped and boastful, loving to tell tales about his own heroism, and having enough bravery to make up for some lack of brains, as he decides to strip and battle Grendel in the nude because Grendel wears no clothes.  But, as in Austin Powers, there’s always some foreground object curiously in place to hide the money shot.

Beowulf kills Grendel by tearing off his arm, proving that at the least he has a very disarming personality.  There is much rejoicing, as Hrothgar even promises Beowulf his queen (Wright Penn), who, of course, is not just any beauty, but a cream cheese like statue with sad weeping eyes, soft voice, and who plucks a lyre and sings nonchalantly.

However, that isn’t the end of the story…Grendel is gone, but his mother proves even more of a muther to deal with as she swoops in and exacts bloody revenge.  “How many demons do I have to kill around here?” the exasperated Beowulf proclaims, and soon he and his right hand man Wiglaf (Gleeson) are off to do battle again.

When he finds Grendel’s mother, he’s surprised to find that she looks like Angelina Jolie, and is also very naked and inviting.  And the mother offers a devil’s pact…in exchange for a new son and a sacred piece of treasure once belonging to Hrothgar, Beowulf will be the new king; mighty and invincible, as long as said treasure is in her possession.

Flash forward some fifty years.  Beowulf is indeed king, and unstoppable, as many try to defeat him but none can.  But remember that son he promised?  Yep, he’s a bad one too…a dragon who breathes fire and wreaks havoc, meaning the aging hero will have to do battle one last time.

This film was designed for 3-D, and it’s hard not to chuckle at the blatant exploitation of the medium, even in two dimensions.  Swords, arrows, blood and body parts fly endlessly at the screen just to make audiences react and duck.  It’s a hoot, and I assume in this unrated edition, a little more plentiful than what was seen in theatres.

So no, this isn’t the Beowulf of your school days, and so much the better.  It’s a story that’s enough ingrained in our consciousness to be palatable, but hardly sacred enough to discourage a little tampering.  Zemeckis, using the same kind of motion capture technology utilized in The Polar Express, uses his actors to render fairly realistic looking CGI counterparts on the screen, and once he has that, he can go anywhere with the backgrounds, effects and mayhem.

I mentioned back when I reviewed 300 that there would be imitators to follow by filmmakers who try to surpass it by turning up the blood and violence even more.  Beowulf proved me right; it turns up the spectacular carnage, but fails to find the same kind of real drama.

Yet I enjoyed the gleeful absurdity of it all.  Beowulf offers thrills and spectacles, but also laughs, and I think the laughs were intentional.  Or, in other words, it’s a bloody good time. 

Video ***1/2

This anamorphic transfer offers some incredible visuals, but my one complaint is that Zemeckis seemed to try a little too hard to make his CGI look like real camerawork.  There are scenes where background objects are out of focus, which doesn’t have to happen with a computer, and darker scenes that look a bit murky, as though the lack of light was causing some camera problems.  Interesting approach, but not necessary, as otherwise this is a gorgeous and striking rendering.

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 audio offers constant bombardment, with plenty of crossover action, dynamic range, and crystal clear dialogue.  Not to mention the pulse of the subwoofer, always a harbinger of danger.

Features ***

There are six deleted scenes, and featurettes on the making of the movie, the design of the creatures, creating the ultimate Beowulf, the art of the movie, and a look at the origins of the tale, plus a trailer.

Summary:

A warning to current and future students:  don’t think you can get out of reading Beowulf in class by using this film as your Cliff Notes.  This is over-the-top entertainment at its shameless best, but a true representation of the epic poem it most certainly is not.

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