November 20, 2007

Movie Review: Beowulf

Beowulf is based on the untitled poem dating to 700 AD that has come to be known as Beowulf. That has a nice symmetry, doesn't it? Anyway, the original epic poem is the oldest known work of Anglo-Saxon writing. It tells the story of a hero who fought a creature called Grendel before facing off with the creature's mother, and then later in life battling a dragon. There is likely a good number of you who have read the story at some point, probably as part of a high school English class. At least that is how I had come into first contact with the work. Of course, I was not much of an English class fan in high school and have very little memory of the tale. My memory begins and ends with the Geat hero battling Grendel, I do not remember anything about Grendel's mum nor a dragon. I guess I should go back and do some reading.

This new version is somewhat true to the original, although some details have been "adjusted" and other pieces added in an effort to make the exercise a bit more cinematic. Much like adapting a traditional novel things will need to be changed in the service of the different, visually based medium. The end result may not be as classic as the original tale, but it is no less entertaining as big screen spectacle.

This is not the first time the tale has been adapted to the screen. Two other versions come to mind. First is Beowulf released back in 1999, it was turned into a science fiction vision starring Highlander star Christopher Lambert. I've never seen it, though I am curious. The other is the 2005 film entitled Beowulf & Grendel starring 300's Gerard Butler as the Geat of legend. That one I have seen, and while it was not all that great, it did offer an interesting take. It presented the story as being real, documented by one of their number, thus birthing the legend. Between those two versions and this one, the new animated feature is probably the closest to the source material.

Beowulf is a tale of myth and legend. There are no attempts made to present this as a real story; no facade is made to disguise the mythic qualities. The creative team does not attempt to present this as reality. In other words, this is not Troy, which made the misguided choice of telling Homer's tale of Achilles as if it were a historical fact rather than legend involving god-like characters. So, do not expect Beowulf to be anything but an overblown morality play. It is larger than life, as well it should be. Of recent cinema it can most closely be likened to 300, which was all about the creation of legend rather than recreating reality.

The film opens with a celebration of the opening of a new mead hall, a building with the express purpose of housing celebration. Overseeing the merrymaking is King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), who commissioned its creation since the last one was destroyed by a creature known as Grendel (Crispin Glover) who has been terrorizing the people. With the party resuming, Grendel has once again been disturbed.

The grotesque creature lays siege on the hall, breaking down doors and rending the limbs of the warriors. When all is said and done, the room is left destroyed and littered with the bodies of Hrothgar's people. This is the last straw, the drunken king puts up half of their gold as bounty for anyone willing and able to rid them of the foul beast. This garners the attention of Beowulf the Geat and his band of hungry warriors.

Oh, you know how it goes. Even if you don't, I am sure you can probably guess the direction. If there is one thing that Beowulf doesn't deliver, surprises. The story is as straightforward as it gets. Where it does succeed is in its execution of the characters. Screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary now how to make the characters larger than life yet still possess the tragic flaws that would bring about their downfall.

The tag line is: "Pride is the curse." It could also be the familiar saying: "Those who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it." I know, it's not quite as catchy and it is a bit long. Still, it is accurate based on what is presented in the film. It isn't subtle, but it is no less exhilarating for it.

The biggest element that sets this version apart from others would be the near photo realistic motion captured animation. Director Robert Zemeckis continues down the technological path he began with The Polar Express. The technology is much further along, and while there is still a certain zombie-like look to the characters, it is incredible how lifelike it looks. All of the actors actually performed all of the movements, which were then manipulated in a computer, ending with the result you see on the screen.

Most of the actors are recognizable in their animated form, particularly Angelina Jolie. Even Crispin Glover's Grendel is somewhat recognizable as the decidedly unique actor. However, the biggest splash was made by Ray Winstone in the title role, and the one who resembles his animated form the least. Much like Gerard Butler in 300, Winstone grabs the role by the throat and takes complete charge of the film.

The film is being presented in standard 2D, digital 3D, and IMAX 3D. I had the opportunity to see it in IMAX 3D, and it was simply breathtaking. There are no cheap 3D thrills like the old Jaws and Friday the 13th sequels, nor is the lame red/blue anaglyph format. This is 3D like you've never seen, or at least not on this scale. 3D is really the only way to see it. I am very interested in seeing how this format is used in the future. The success of Beowulf will likely have a big impact on its use in the near future.

Bottomline. Big, mythic, and legendary. This is pure pop cinema. It is not difficult to figure out, and it could inspire many to read the source poem. It may not be the best film of the year, but it is most definitely one of the best experiences of the year.

Highly Recommended.


Anonymous said...

Beowulf's animation was all around impressive, though the characters' movement reminded me a lot of Shrek. I appreciate the fact that this movie gives a pseudo-education in ancient literature (never had to read the book as a child)

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