The reason we respond to myth is simple. The epic paints the plainest of universal pronouncements – good vs. evil, right vs. wrong – in images so stunning that we can’t help but embrace the message. It simultaneously taps into our philosophical and faith-based pleasure centers while manipulating our impressions along massive moralistic lines. Still, this doesn’t mean that all legend makes great cinema. For every Lord of the Rings, there are dozens of preachy period pieces. Indeed, one of the main reason the classics avoid motion picture manipulation is that what sounded good as spoken history frequently plays as stodgy and almost inert on screen. Such is the case with Beowulf. Like a Woody Allen joke gone awry, anyone attempting to bring the story to life has had to overcome a litany of high school literature lessons. Luckily Oscar winner Robert Zemeckis was up to the challenge.
After his kingdom is continuously attacked by a wicked mountain troll named Grendel, King Hrothgar puts out a call to any hero who will slay the beast. For them, a solid gold mead horn and the honor of the royal bed is the reward. Into the fray walks Beowulf, legendary conqueror, slayer of all sorts of vile monsters. After being warned of the demon’s foul temper, our champion tempts fate and lures it to the Great Hall. There, they battle to the death. With victory in hand, Beowulf then heads into the caves to kill the wicked witch who begat such demonic despair. Instead of slaughter, however, he’s seduced. Decades pass, and with it, the infallibility of Beowulf’s rule. When a new creature arrives to destroy the realm, the longtime leader must face the mistakes he made in his arrogance, a chance to save his legacy once and for all.
Beowulf brays and boasts, it overwhelms and it soars. Like the tendency to exaggerate inherent in its hero, it’s a majestic movie that doesn’t quite add up to the epic we anticipate. But by pushing the very edges of the CG’s technological tolerances, and introducing the third dimension as a way to heighten the histrionics, director Roger Zemeckis has fashioned one of the most satisfying popcorn flicks of the year. No other film in what is rapidly becoming an impressive mainstream movie going season is as awe-inspiring, as totally given over to the visual splendor of the artform as this warhorse telling of the classic poem. Sure, the storyline has been retrofitted to encompass more modern ideals, and animation tends to dull what are usually overripe human posturing, but when it looks this good, and entertains this well, who cares if its cartoons doing the job.
Granted, these are some remarkable looking bitmaps, the realism missing from most of the medium’s stylized renderings in full effect here. Ray Winstone’s title character will make the maidens swoon, especially during his infamous nude battle with key monster Grendel. And Angelina Jolie is on hand to keep the lads lathered up, though her gold gilding and high heeled demon is a tad too modern for the era she exists in. From Anthony Hopkins portly king to John Malkovich’s conniving court advisor, the closeness to true human performance is absolutely astounding. Miles away from Zemeckis’ previous experiment in motion capture (the cool but quite plastic Polar Express) there is a roughness and a texture here that is hard to escape. When we see Beowulf in close-up, his chin stubble and wispy blond hair respond to every movement. Equally impressive are sequences where physical endurance and acumen must be recreated. Instead of robotic and limited, we see actual stuntwork and spectacle.
This is an eyepopping experience, especially given the fact that it is only being shown in either IMAX or standard 3D. Yes, you have to wear the goofy glasses (polarized, not the never quite effective two color kind) but it’s well worth it. The stereoscopic image is truly breathtaking. When we travel across the sea, watching Beowulf’s boat battle a series of Perfect Storm style waves, the terror and triumph of the sequence are unmatched. Similarly, the celebrated mead hall where much of the action takes place has the proper balance of video game perspective and backdrop believability. From the last act dragon attack that sees our hero literally hanging by a thread as the beast lunges and leaps from the bottom of the ocean to the top of the highest tower, to the introduction of Grendel with an amazing tracking shot that ends up on the creature’s throbbing eardrum and profusely bleeding head, Zemeckis and his artisans have amplified the aesthetic range of this kind of creativity.
That goes for the aforementioned fiend in particular. Voiced by the godlike Crispin Glover (who should be in every movie by cinematic mandate) and rendered rotting and repugnant, there is a true soul buried inside this crude collection of cartilage and pain. At first, one is unsure of the design being utilized. Zemeckis goes a tad overboard in turning Grendel into something all together otherworldly. His misshapen misery is so pronounced, it’s virtually intolerable. Add in the agonizing vocalizations by Glover and the tortured nature of the character is sickening. But when given over to quieter moments, when we see an injured Grendel speaking to his mother, the interaction is intriguing – and then enlightening. We grow in our appreciation of this fiend, and find ourselves missing him once the movie dispenses with his importance.
Indeed, once Beowulf moves into Act Two, it tends to lag a little. Hopkins’ boorish ruler does enliven things, but Robin Wright Penn is not the most compelling love/lust object. Her queen is too clued in, to post-modern manipulative to warrant a conqueror’s ardor. It’s a similar situation with Jolie. Unless we are to believe that every 6th Century Dane was incapable of refusing a vixen’s charms, her come hither slink smacks of Hollywood, not the hinterland. Indeed, the women are the weak link throughout Beowulf, and if there’s one lesson to be learned from the monster success of 300, it’s to keep the ladies as far in the background as possible. They need only be brought out as plot catalysts, not narrative foundations.
Similarly, the film fumbles its pacing. The first half, dealing almost exclusively with Grendel, is so adrenaline pumping and kinetic that whatever comes after is bound to disappoint. Even more telling, the next section more or less repeats what we’ve seen before. While not completely faithful to the original epic, the plot points from said literary hallmark are all in place. This means there’s a marginal predictability, a familiarity that may soften your initial enthusiasm. But when eye candy is this sumptuous, when we can literally watch a rat travel from great hall rafter to falcon’s claw, when our hero’s post-conflict sweat glistens with a real sense of exertion and effort, you know you’re in the hands of cinematic masters.
Beowulf will probably not be a hit, unfortunately. The storytelling is too fractured and the initial majesty muted by one too many maudlin heart-to-hearts. In an era when action typically means nonstop ballistics, where scene longevity trumps logic every time, Zemeckis’ recast myth is just too abjectly old school. It wants to luxuriate in its visuals and crush with the unbridled power of cinematic imagination. And for the most part, it does. Audiences may not appreciate the over the top tendencies and cheeky chest-thumping, but there is something delightfully appealing about such 3D bravado. CGI or not, this Beowulf demands attention. So what if it has to move a few outsized mountains to do it.