Movie Review: Beowulf
By Matthew Huntley
November 29, 2007
Hearing of Heorot's need for help, the mighty Beowulf (Ray Winstone) sails in from Geatland, promising to protect Heorot from monsters. He's aided by a sidekick named Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson) and an army of warriors.
Only one man doubts Beowulf's abilities - the suspicious Unferth (John Malkovich), a man more willing to believe in the teachings of Jesus than a glorified hero. Hrothgar's Queen, Wealthow (Robin Wright-Penn), appears quite taken by the new hero and serenades him to sleep. That same night, Grendel attacks again, only he doesn't escape as easily, which sets up a greater battle between Beowulf and Grendel's mother and, later on, a fire-breathing dragon.
I have never read the long poem, but online sources reveal this adaptation differs significantly from the original, which itself may have been tweaked by translators. But even so, it's evident the broad strokes and themes of the poem are kept intact by screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, who have retained the mythology and human moral conflicts. The movie is visionary and paced in a classical sense. It's not very original, but it does contain several moments of thrilling violence and human theatrics.
As is typical of Robert Zemeckis movies, this one is loaded with action and special effects. These sometimes overshadow the human characters, but the movie sidesteps only becoming about these things because of the strong cast, including Hopkins, Winstone, Wright-Penn and even Jolie, whose sexuality is fully exploited to great effect.
There are some missteps in regards to the storytelling, one of which involves Beowulf's genitals. Instead of taking a risk and actually showing them or finding practical ways of hiding them, the movie resorts to cheap and unintentionally funny ways of obscuring Beowulf's manliness in the tradition of Austin Powers. During the screening, people were laughing instead of accepting that nudity was more common in the first century, when men and women weren't so self-conscious and protective of their bodies. The way Zemeckis films Beowulf when he's naked makes it seem like he was going for a joke even though the scene doesn't call for one.
And the ending feels too much like a video game. What is supposed to be the ultimate battle and emotional climax ends up looking like an ad for Xbox. Zemeckis uses too many long shots instead of close-ups to keep the action about the character and less about the technology that went into the designing and shooting of the scene.
But I ultimately liked Beowulf, and it pleases me to say that because, like many, I walked into the screening with a sneaking suspicion it wouldn't work. Like Brett, I found it hard to justify why Zemeckis would choose animation over live action when his intent seems so concentrated on making the characters simply look human.
Still, the movie made me hopeful that more doors can be opened for animation to conquer new cinematic feats that live action simply can't. But it's important to recognize that animation isn't merely seen as the only choice; sometimes it really is the best choice. I'm not convinced animation was the best choice for Beowulf, but I do think it turned out to be a good one.
NOTE: I saw the movie in 3-D and while it was mostly a pleasurable experience, there were times where it seemed the characters were standing in front a matte, which made it appear flat. If it's playing as a 3-D presentation near you, I recommend seeing it. Otherwise, a traditional theater will suffice.