“If we die it’ll be for glory, not for gold!”
So exclaims our hero, Beowulf, a fixture of Anglo-Saxon mythology so old he predates English as a written language. One thousand years after its inception, the 10th century poem that fathered countless legends, is retooled for a new generation.
As England’s principal epic, Beowulf continues to seduce literary and cinematic giants alike. From loose adaptations like Lord of the Rings and The 13th Warrior, to playful spin-offs (John Gardner’s book Grendel comes to mind), the Beowulf legend continues to find traction, even in a modern age. Some entries are worth seeking (2005’s quirky Icelandic production Beowulf and Grendel), while others remain appropriately obscure (beware of anything with Christopher Lambert).
Set on the craggy shores of Scandinavia, Beowulf is centered in a pagan Germanic world not yet succumbed to civilized Christendom. It bears all the markings of an epic: The title hero, his quest, and exaggerated feats; there are frightening sea monsters, seductive sirens, and a broad geographical reach. But Beowulf owes its sustained appeal to its propensity for reinvention. With each retelling, the story is embellished further. And in the innovative hands of Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump) it grows two-fold.
Zemeckis wastes little time, dropping us into a vividly animated 6th century kingdom, high on Denmark’s sea cliffs. The Prince of Persia visuals are initially cumbersome, but quickly segue into clever POVs sure to engage viewers. Zemeckis’ virtual camera follows the Danes’ boisterous shouts, from King Hrothgar’s mead hall to the frayed edge of a wild forest, where the monster Grendel writhes in agony at their cheer. It’s an expertly woven scene, akin to the director’s opening interstellar sequence in Contact.
Bent by an unspoken rage, Grendel bursts into Hrothgar’s great hall, determined to silence its merriment. Backed by an unholy blue flame, the wailing troll tears the king’s thanes in half, smashing their torsos about, and squeezing blood from their bodies. It’s all pretty terrifying, and would undoubtedly send the squeamish running from their seats, had it been filmed rather than drawn. But therein lies the rub: Animation, even when it’s this good, is still mimicry.
Make no mistake, Beowulf is not a cartoon – it’s just not the “real thing”, either. The film flirts with fornication and flesh in the playful abandon of the period, but its violence (especially in the director’s cut) nearly rivals that of last year’s other sword and sandal epic, 300. The bloodletting is gruesome, but not gratuitous.
Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) offers up half his gold to the man, or men, capable of exorcising the demon that plagues his kingdom. And so, from across the Nordic sea come Beowulf (Ray Winstone) and his boastful crew of Geats. “The Sea is my mother,” shouts Beowulf above the crashing waves, “Ever can she take me back to her murky womb!” Even if his movements are just shy of real-time, Beowulf’s words are nonetheless stirring.
Dropping all pretense of the vernacular, Zemeckis gives us reductive prose, sprinkled with Anglo-Saxon charm, and it works. More myth than man, Beowulf seems unimpeachable. He’s fearless, honorable, handsome, and articulate. Winstone (The Departed) has a warm, commanding tone, though most viewers will have a tough time placing the actor, particularly since he’s drawn to look more like Sean Bean (The Hitcher) than a portly, middle-aged Brit. At the hands of the animation team, our fabled hero is six and a half feet tall, heavily muscled, and (surely to the delight of some), clad in very little for most of the film. Of course, Hollywood’s cinematic taboos remain, sparing audiences the sight of Beowulf’s junk as he fights Grendel in the nude.
As Hrothgar, the cerebral Hopkins is a hoot – fat and naked, and uncharacteristically loopy. Even in his melancholy mood, the king seems a bit unhinged. His Queen, however, is less impressive. Voiced by Robin Wright Penn (The Princess Bride), Wealthow is shabbily drawn, and affects a tired, cynical look. Her vacant stare is meant as tacit commentary on an unhappy marriage, but plainly speaking, she’s a bore.
In an age when studios regularly employ the voices of A-listers like Eddie Murphy and Billy Crystal, audiences demand recognizable charm. We expect actors to project personality onto their animated selves, imbuing these cartoon shells with familiarity. But Beowulf isn’t Shrek, or Monsters Inc., and most of it’s not played for laughs.
Instead, Zemeckis taps into Great Britain’s trove of thespians to bring Beowulf’s dialogue to life. When our hero insists, “I’ve come to kill your monster!” it sounds brash and authentic. Rounding out the cast are John Malkovich (who seems incapable of subtlety) as Unferth, and the exceptional Brendan Gleeson (Gangs of New York) as Wiglaf, Beowulf’s loyal and good-natured captain. Gleeson’s voice has a mischievous cadence, which surfaces even from under an imposing Viking beard.
Only Malkovich stretches his character into parody. As the king’s counselor (and a proponent of Christianity), Unferth’s abusive condescension is irritating. He chastises Beowulf for his narcissism, indicting the vanity (and irrelevance) of quests. In fact, despite obligatory nods to Odin and Ragnarok, Zemeckis himself hints at the decline of the Old Norse ways.
Best known for his Back to the Future series, Zemeckis has always been something of a visionary. In Forrest Gump, he assimilated Tom Hanks into some of television’s most famous moments. Ten years later, the director docked The Polar Express in theaters, revealing an obsession with technology. Hanks even visits the Beowulf set, during one of the DVD’s featurettes, and teases his old boss about this digital addiction. Indeed, Beowulf strides well beyond the limitations animation faced only a few years ago.
Through the magic of motion capture, we’re treated to realism never before seen. Bonus features painstakingly detail the evolution from paintings and storyboards, to mockups and miniatures. Beowulf’s pre-production was staggering. Before Hopkins, or Winstone, ever suited up, their characters were first visualized in a rough animation sequence.
Afterwards, the actors were fitted into body suits, laden with hundreds of sensor dots, and directed onto a soundstage flooded with infrared light. There, the live action was picked up by receptors, and could be matched to secondary animation already designed. With a limitless array of green-screened sets, Zemeckis could create nearly anything the screenwriters could imagine.
The action is metered well throughout the film, with battle sequences sure to stand the hairs on your neck. These are profound leaps in creature animation, superior even to Peter Jackson’s work with Gollum. The monster itself is extraordinary: Grendel stands 12 feet tall, with bent limbs, a skewed jaw, and deeply set eyes. Deformed and horrifically exposed (with plate-sized ear drums that rattle easily), he’s a sinewy freak, not human at all. But when the monster retreats to his cave, there is a sad frailty to his condition.
Long has Grendel been painted as an unthinking beast, but here screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary (the latter of whom co-wrote Pulp Fiction) express in him a welcome complexity. Tormented and alone, Grendel (voiced eerily by Crispin Glover) is strangely sympathetic, even meek.
The film’s masterstroke, however, comes from an unlikely source: Beowulf marks the first time a widely released American film has featured animated nudity. And blessed be! Is that uber-vixen Angelina Jolie rising naked from a cave pool, like some scorpion-tailed siren? As a shape-shifting water demon – and Grendel’s mother – Jolie (A Mighty Heart) is captivating. The pouty-lipped actress seems to personify what men desire, and here, in the fluid realm of digitalization, she’s flawless. What’s more, her accent is finely polished to its most seductive Eastern European coo yet.
Enchanted by this succubus, Beowulf proves no different than Hrothgar, or the other Danes; under his escutcheon is a flawed human, easier to seduce than to kill. Pride is his curse – and Man’s. Only Queen Wealthow seems infallible, quietly sitting in judgment of the husbands who fail all around her. The director’s cut features a more ambiguous ending than the theatrical release, which would seem to support this. Still, the screenwriters feel compelled to spell it out: “We men are the monsters now,” admits an aging Beowulf. “The time of heroes is dead.” It’s a pedantic approach, nodding clumsily at an audience that would rather play Beowulf: The Game, than read the classic text. And who can blame them? The poem never looked this good.
Crawling with mermaids and monsters, irony, and gore, Beowulf delivers the goods, without betraying its core narrative. Unfortunately, the film’s adult content (and, reportedly, its mo-cap production) seems to have precluded it from the race for Best Animated Feature. And while giving it the fan-boy treatment might sully Beowulf’s pedigree (remember, it’s widely considered to be a founding work of the English language), it should be argued that this adaptation simply updates the telling for a more visually sophisticated audience.
In the DVD’s commentary, Avary reminds us that Beowulf is supposed to be retold; that’s the point. To their credit, the screenwriters not only weave Old English into the dialogue, but retain subplots from the original text (like Breca’s swimming race). In light of recent interpretations, 2007’s incarnation is undeniably legit.
Impressive on the big screen, Beowulf translates surprisingly well to television. Ultimately, however, the experiment is more a stepping-stone than a success. Like its forebears (Final Fantasy anyone?), the film hopes to press technology onward, and it succeeds.
Still, animators are trading soul for all that pretty action, and it will leave some viewers unfulfilled. Caught in an ill-defined niche (even The Polar Express will air, interminably, on holiday network television), Beowulf may fall as a footnote in the quest towards CGI for adults. Nonetheless, fans of the genre – and completists – will find it a worthy installment.
In lesser hands, animated Vikings might elicit mockery, but Zemeckis deftly wields Beowulf as the fun, pulpy myth it is. At the helm, he’s admirably restrained, much like Beowulf himself.