Beowulf (2007) takes us back to the olden days of Anglo-Saxon swordplay, when mystical creatures weren’t just the stuff of nightmares. Following on from director Robert Zemeckis’s previous trip into the Uncanny Valley, Beowulf uses CGI and motion capture to bring the famous epic poem to life. Unfortunately, Zemeckis mostly uses this classic piece of literature as an excuse to create the movie equivalent of a “rated M for mature” video game, without much of a story behind all the computer generated violence and nudity.
The story begins in Denmark circa 500 AD, which is under the rule of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), known for his amazing celebrations that are overflowing with mead and busty women. His people love to be merry and sing and drink in the legendary hall, which is all fine and dandy until the noise carries across the land and begins to irritate Grendel (Crispin Glover).
Grendel is a grotesque, disfigured giant that looks like a cadaver rejected from the Body Worlds exhibit for being too ugly. He absolutely hates the sound of humans carousing, which could partly be because of his exposed eardrum, or partly because he never gets an invite. And so, Grendel attacks each time there’s a celebration, causing numerous violent deaths.
Rather than keep the volume down, King Hrothgar sends out a call for heroes who are brave enough to come and slay the creature. In no time, Beowulf (Ray Winstone) and his crew show up. Upon their arrival, the king is incredibly pleased, seeing as how he fought alongside Beowulf’s father in many battles. He offers the hero a prized dragon-shaped drinking horn if he successfully fulfills the mission, but Beowulf is more interested in a different kind of reward: namely, the love of the young queen (Robin Wright-Penn). Surprisingly, the king is cool with this, because the queen despises him anyway.
Beowulf calls for another celebration to lure Grendel back, and also so he can make goo-goo eyes the whole time at the queen, who seems to return his affections. Naturally, Grendel takes the bait, and as the monster is on his way, Beowulf decides to strip naked, reasoning that Grendel himself is naked and doesn’t carry weapons, therefore wearing clothes won’t protect Beowulf, or something like that. Yes, this is based on something in the original poem, but honestly, I think the dude just likes to be naked.
Finally, the creature shows up and plows through most of Beowulf’s men, before our hero rips off the monster’s arm and sends him crying home.
Grendel lives long enough to make it back to his cave, where he’s attended to by his mother, a dragon who’s mostly unseen in these shots except for her long, scaly, golden tail. Meanwhile, the entire village stages a celebration for Beowulf, where he’s presented with that golden drinking horn from the king. But the peace doesn’t last long, as Beowulf awakens the same night to find the rest of his crew hanging grimly from the rafters. It seems Grendel’s mother has slaughtered all of Beowulf’s men as revenge for killing her son.
The king immediately knows who’s to blame, and sends Beowulf on a second mission to kill Grendel’s mother. But when he gets there, she’s transformed herself into a beautiful woman (Angelina Jolie) who’s totally naked except for what looks like gold body paint.
Her beauty tempts Beowulf and he ends up hooking up with her, but in order to maintain his honor, he lies and claims to have killed her. We then get the not-too-subtle suggestion that King Hrothgar also slept with Grendel’s mother back in the day, making him Grendel’s dad, and also explaining why the queen has been angry with him all this time.
Nevertheless, as a reward, the king makes Beowulf his heir, and then immediately throws himself off a balcony into the sea. Geez, I know the old lady was kind of a drag, but why not just ask for a divorce?
Many years pass, and we come to Beowulf as an old man, who seems to have found himself in the same situation as King Hrothgar. His wife hates him and he’s plagued by nightmares. The once arrogant hero is now no more than a shell of man.
But then the drinking horn he took on his mission to kill Grendel’s mother has now resurfaced, which is bad news for Beowulf. Apparently, this means their truce has been voided, and a huge golden dragon destroys a nearby village. And as it turns out, the dragon is really the son that Beowulf had with Grendel’s mom.
Beowulf returns to the cave to give back the horn, but it’s too late. Grendel’s mother sends her son to completely annihilate Beowulf’s kingdom. After a huge battle, Beowulf finally ends up killing the dragon (by ripping out his heart!) but this time, he doesn’t live to tell the tale.
If you were ever made to read this epic poem in high school or college, you’ll know that it’s the oldest surviving story written in Old English. The general belief is that the story was written down by monks who took the oral version of a pagan tale and added Christian elements to help spread the word of Jesus. Screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary did a good job of including this element in the movie, with the king’s aide Unferth (John Malkovich) often proclaiming his allegiance to the Christian god over the Norse deities that Hrothgar worships. (And it’s amusing to hear Anthony Hopkins repeatedly exclaim, “Odin be praised!” when he was just a few years away from playing Odin himself.)
But for the most part, the character of Unferth is an emotionless zombie, and he’s just one of many characters that really have no life to them. Their line deliveries are mostly dull and flat, and there’s not a whole lot of expression in their mo-capped faces. It’s strange that it turned out this way, because there are a lot of great actors voicing these characters. The only thing keeping my interest was the action, of which there’s not nearly enough. (Though I’m sure a large segment of viewers will probably be kept interested by a nearly naked CGI Angelina Jolie.)
Beowulf was released in 2007, which makes me question why the animation in this movie is so bad, especially given the huge budget of $150 million. The characters’ gestures are stiff and uncomfortable, which is only made worse by the jarring video game-like “camera” movements, which draw more attention to the quality of the animation than what’s going on in the story.
And many of the fight scenes seemed to deliberately imitate that thing that current action movies do, where everything goes into slow motion whenever someone is killed, allowing you to see each death in (literally) gory detail. It’s annoying enough when live-action movies do it; do we really need to see this overused effect in our animated movies, too?
Also, there are a lot of “comin’ at ya” style 3-D effects that I thought went out of style with 3-D films of the ‘80s. At various points, we get giant spears in our faces, arrows flying at us, and there’s even a castle spire that comes up between Beowulf’s legs and nearly impales him in the junk. Another silly bit is when Beowulf is naked, and we get all kinds of ridiculous Austin Powers-type angles to prevent us from seeing his private areas. The over-the-top bits combined with the bad CGI often gave this movie the feel of an unofficial Shrek sequel.
Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother plays the part of a seductress rather well, but it’s rather uncomfortable how hard the camera ogles her. The mo-cap technique lets the filmmakers give us a naked Angelina Jolie without actually having to get the actress herself to do a nude (or implied nude) scene, and they exploit this for all it’s worth. But I guess that wasn’t titillating enough, because when she comes out of water covered in gold, her feet are in the shape of high heels. Why? High heels wouldn’t have been seen as sexy back then; in fact, people would have thought you were crazy for wearing something so impractical. Well, after they got over the fact your ankles were showing.
It’s somewhat amazing that this movie only got a PG-13 rating, what with the nudity and bloodshed galore and obvious bouncing CGI boobs, and of course, Beowulf ripping the still-beating heart out of his son the dragon’s chest. Despite its legendary source material, Beowulf plays like someone gave $150 million to a group of 13-year-old boys and let them run amuck. Your mileage may vary, especially if you’re a 13-year-old boy, but to me the whole thing just felt gratuitous.
[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]