November 16, 2007


Hide the men and children...

Grade: B
Starring: Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Robin Wright Penn, Brendan Gleeson, Crispin Glover, Alison Lohman, and Angelina Jolie
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

As we enter the movie awards season, it is as incongruous to find an honest-to-God popcorn-muncher as it is a coming-of-age period drama during Memorial Day weekend. And, when you do find one, it is usually some lackluster left-behind that did not make the summer cut.

However, in spite of its English-lit pedigree, director Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf is pure action-adventure fun, with flesh-eating monsters, high-flying dragons, hunky heroes, and a bit of ribald humor to boot. It is a true amalgam of its makers, from co-writer Neil Gaiman’s fantasy fiction (Stardust; MirrorMask) to co-writer Roger Avary’s more bawdy filmography (Pulp Fiction; The Rules of Attraction) to Zemeckis’ second shot at the “performance capture” animation technique he introduced with limited success in The Polar Express. Gone are the dead eyes and expressionless human visages, replaced by visuals that are far more lifelike. Unfortunately, they are also no better than your average PS3/X-Box 360 video game; in fact, a Beowulf tie-in game was simultaneously released that incorporates voice work from actors in the film, including Anthony Hopkins, Ray Winstone, and Brendan Gleeson.

The basic storyline is drawn from the 8th century Anglo-Saxon poem and begins with Beowulf’s (Winstone) journey to kill the misshapen humanoid monster Grendal (Crispin Glover, speaking his dialogue solely in Old English) and save the realm of King Hrothgar (Hopkins), the much-loved Lord of the Danes. A hulking mass of muscles and a blond mane, the larger-than-life Viking warrior is then dispatched to slay Grendal’s mother (Angelina Jolie). It is here that Avary’s contribution deviates significantly from the musty original text, for Beowulf beds, not beheads, the digitized vagina dentata that, in the form of a nearly nude Jolie ("playing" a creature that steals other women's husbands), is the sultriest animated siren since Jessica Rabbit.

To its credit, Beowulf depicts a flawed central hero, from his frailty with Grendal’s mother to womanizing with mistress Ursula (Alison Lohman) at the expense of his suffering wife, Wealthow (Robin Wright-Penn). This, combined with several action-packed sequences, more than keeps you glued to the screen, although screening I attended was of the digital 3D version that will grace hundreds of screens nationwide. The technology has advanced since the era of tinted cellophane goggles, and here the images literally pop off the screen for a result that is significantly more enjoyable than its 2D incarnation.

Beowulf earns every inch of its PG-13 rating with oodles of gore, suggested sex, and strategic nudity, and only an animated patina spares it an R-rating. But, frankly, a live action version given the Lord of the Rings-style CGI treatment could have been a stellar film. As it is, Beowulf is a fascinating diversion, and you don’t even have to worry about beating your high score to enjoy it.

Neil Morris

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