out of ****
Is it just me, or does Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf cheat, both with its artistry and its storytelling? The gimmick here is that the film is so lifelike in its animation that the characters and their surroundings look real, and sure enough—that’s Ray Winstone’s chubby face on the body of a stalwart young man, and it’s a seamless transition. So vivid is the detail that I can literally count the freckles on his face. But the realism, as striking as it might be, is the film’s biggest distraction: I go and see animated movies because they have different ingredients than live-action features—angles and stunts and images flowing from the imagination of the filmmakers and uninhibited by budgetary concerns. This film tries so hard to replicate live action, both in its cinematic technique and its reproduction of its famous actors, that I don’t know why its makers labored for so long under such tedious conditions when they could have just filmed the script with real sets and actors under heavy makeup. Not that it would have helped the film all that much; indeed, it would have only allowed the shallow and uninteresting script to betray itself all the more.
The legend of Beowulf has had a limited cinematic journey (see my In-Depth article for more details), at least in comparison to other mythological mighty men like Hercules. Not counting all of the archetypes and tropes that the original poem, probably written around 800 C.E., introduced into western storytelling (and if you’re not aware, just ask J.R.R. Tolkien), only five official adaptations have ever been made: John McTiernan’s The 13th Warrior (1999), Graham Baker’s post-apocalyptic Beowulf (1999) with Christopher Lambert in the lead, Sturla Gunnarsson’s masterpiece Beowulf & Grendel, which I named the best film of 2006, Nick Lyon’s Sci-Fi Channel original Grendel (released earlier in 2007, probably as a cash-in), and this new adaptation. Of them all, only Gunnarsson’s is an accomplishment, but the others, excluding Lyon’s work, are not without some degree of merit. Zemeckis’ version is better than Baker’s, and about on equal level with McTiernan’s unfocused piece. Lyon’s is the worst of the lot—a low-budget, ill-conceived disaster. Anyway: Now you know the order to watch them; if you do so, you will see that for the first epic story ever told in Western culture, Beowulf seems to be one of the easiest to screw up.
That might have something to do with the poem’s content, which does not easily lend itself to a straightforward adaptation. The simplistic story has to do with a mighty warrior who first slays a troll named Grendel, then the troll’s mother, and, many years later, a fire-breathing dragon. In between, Beowulf, King Hrothgar (whose halls are under siege from the trolls) and additional characters engage in long, drunken banters that reap praise upon praise on each other, like sailors trying to one-up their mates with increasingly over-the-top war stories. It’s an exciting, strapping read, but not one that is easily adapted onto the screen due to the vignette-nature of its prose. As someone who has spent a great deal of time with the poem, I am consistently fascinated with watching the film versions (disappointing as most of them are), because I’m curious what the various filmmakers have taken away as the meat of the text and what they have filled in with their own imagination.
I suppose we must credit director Zemeckis and writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary for staying the truest to the poem of all these films, and plenty of clever ideas appear throughout their revisionist retooling—particularly in the nature of Grendel’s Mother, who is already infamous from the ads as the demonically beautiful and utterly nude Angelina Jolie. She’s turned into the lingering thread that glues the otherwise unrelated vignettes into a nearly cohesive narrative; I won’t give anything else away, except that Jolie is as naked in the role as you’ve heard. But the film plays like highlights from a longer, better-crafted picture—the story is consistently predictable, and none of the characters are likable or particularly interesting. Unfortunate, because we get the feeling that they could have been quite engaging, had a little more time been given to the script; after all, this is a story about greed, pride, temptation, triumph, and redemption, the stuff of every good tale ever told.
The script obviously wasn’t the first priority here. Beowulf was made for the sake of its animated gimmick, and the characters inhabiting it are so one-note that as soon as they are respectively introduced, you’ve pretty much scene the movie and can predict how it will play out. Hell, just read the tagline on the poster: “Pride is the curse.” No twist beyond this motto is surprising, because the script is so heavy-handed. Anyone familiar with the poem will see the all the deviations from the source coming because the foreshadowing makes it so obvious, and anyone who isn’t familiar will probably wonder what the big deal is—Beowulf is a self-righteous bore, Hrothgar is a horny old drunk, Unferth is a lame-brained religious fanatic, etc. These characters are just asking for what comes to them, and it isn’t difficult to guess how they are going to triumph and/or fall.
In the meantime, Zemeckis shuffles us from one opportunity to reveal the “realism” of the animation to the next: Close-ups of characters make up the bulk of the picture, including detailed facial expressions and ample cleavage so graphic that it often makes the PG-13 rating inexplicable (animated boobs are evidently okay for adolescent boys—even enormous ones that are more lifelike than Playboy’s silicone). Ask yourself as you watch: If this film had been live-action, would any of these sequences be interesting? For that matter, if these characters didn’t look so much like their live-action counterparts, famous actors all, would we be able to distinguish them from each other? Probably not. All their dialogue sounds the same, and none of them are easy to root for.
Gunnarsson’s version worked off the same premise—that our poetic justification for violence is a mask we have fashioned to suppress the awareness of our depravity—but his film had characters who were aware and secretly ashamed of this contradiction, and they ultimately emerged humbled by their scandalous actions. I watch this version and can’t help but think that someone forgot to inform its characters that the joke’s on them, and none of them are bright enough to ever get the punch-line. They all remain static—even as Beowulf considers his mistakes, he only ever seems to think about them as impediments to be overcome in order to exonerate his shameful legacy in his people’s ensuing poems and legends. Gunnarsson’s Beowulf was ultimately too battle-weary to give a damn about poems, and it’s a lesson that Zemeckis’s hero should have taken to heart.
In between these boring interactions are the action sequences, which look stunningly real but lack urgency or thrills and are without any sort of distinguishing detail. That's surprising for a director like Zemeckis, who usually is creatively high-octane (see all the Back to the Future films). Beowulf models its action after The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but it lacks the energy and wit of similar sequences from Peter Jackson. Recall, for example, the cave troll fight in The Fellowship of the Rings, which featured a monster both terrifying and amusingly innocent. Zemeckis has a similar sequence in which Beowulf fights the mutant troll Grendel (Crispin Glover, unrecognizable and sadly underused), an agonizing monster who appears to be melting skin, but the director makes three irredeemable mistakes: 1) the proceeding dialogue promises an epic battle that it not delivered; the fight takes place too quickly to be interesting or impressive; 2) it is marred by the unintentional humor of Beowulf fighting in the nude, with various angles and set pieces intentionally blocking Beowulf, Jr. from view—which demands the question: if Jolie’s animated breasts are acceptable, why not Winstone’s knob? 3) Grendel is such a bizarre, pitiful creature that we are too distracted by his hideousness to really pay close attention to whatever else is happening onscreen—I realize that the troll is supposed to be a terrifying brute, but Zemeckis turns him into a slimy, disgusting giant so malformed and miserable that his mere presence grinds the film to a halt, because we are so worried for his health.
For a film presumably based on one of the most exciting stories ever told, the action is surprisingly non-existent in between Grendel and the dragon (the showdown with Grendel’s mother is decidedly anticlimactic). The skirmish with the dragon is the best moment in the movie, with Beowulf being pulled through the air by a rope attached to the beast’s wing. But as animation, it’s redundant: It’s nothing that couldn’t have been done with a green screen, and the dragon is an undistinguished creature after the recent beasts in mediocre films like Reign of Fire and Dragon Wars; even the cult 80s film Dragonslayer had more interesting looking winged gargoyles. The way that Beowulf ultimately defeats the dragon is gruesomely clever; too bad Zemeckis and his writers set up its payoff with such painfully obvious clues that it lacks any real suspense. I think the final shot is supposed to be ironic, but it reinforces a point about pride that the film has already successfully beaten over our heads, and so it merely comes across as derivative.
I wish I could say more about the performances, as this is a great ensemble cast: Ray Winstone as Beowulf, Anthony Hopkins as Hrothgar, Robin Wright-Penn as Queen Wealthow; John Malkovich, Brendan Gleeson, Angelina Jolie, Chris Coppola and Alison Lohman in supporting roles. But they are all helpless to a predictable script with uninteresting dialogue. Hopkins emerges from his animated counterpart somewhat as the troubled, alcoholic king, who is the most interesting character in the film. But he isn’t given much of a chance to explore the guilt and humiliation hidden inside the soul of the king, and literally exits the movie mid-breath. As Beowulf, Winstone is forced to play the same note over and over. How much of his expressionless face is a result of the failure of the animation to successfully capture his performance is uncertain; I only know that his “dramatic” arrival into the film is devoid of grace, charm, or interest, and he proceeds through the rest of the film without any variation. Gerard Butler’s increasingly introspective Beowulf (from Gunnarsson’s film) is so ahead of him emotionally that he renders Winstone’s interpretation superfluous; even the laughable Christopher Lambert version features a half-demon warrior with convincing pain and weariness behind his eyes that Winstone seems incapable of expressing. I know Winstone to be a tremendous actor (see The Proposition and The Departed), so this is less a critique of him as it is a condemnation of gimmicky animation in which he has been placed.
Scanning metacritic.com, I see that most of the positive reviews that Beowulf has garnered come primarily from those who saw in on IMAX screens, in 3-D. I saw it on a normal-sized screen, and admittedly this isn’t the best format to watch a film that chucks spears and severed limbs at the audience. But is it too much to ask that a film with a couple of gimmicks up its sleeve actually transcend them as well? A film only as effective as its special effects is as full of hot air as one of Beowulf’s speeches, as he drinks his mead and misinterprets his concubines’ lure toward his kingly robes as attraction to his non-existent human charms.
Ray Winstone: Beowulf
Brendan Gleeson: Wiglaf
Anthony Hopkins: Hrothgar
Robin Wright-Penn: Wealthow
John Malkovich: Unferth
Angelina Jolie: The Demon Mother
Crispin Glover: Grendel
Alison Lohman: Urusla
Chris Coppola: Olaf
A Paramount Pictures released. Directed by Rob Zemeckis. Written by Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman. Rated PG-13, for gore/violence, innuendo, frightening sequences, and nudity. Running time: 113 minutes. Original United States theatrical release date: November 16, 2007.