Firmly sharing Woody Allen’s opinion that “you should never take any class where they make you read Beowulf,” I am almost certainly not the target audience for this latest outburst of Robert Zemeckis’ apparent fascination with reducing human beings to creepy waxworks via motion-capture animation. As far as I’m concerned Beowulf is one of those literary creations that boasts little actual merit beyond the fact that it’s very, very, very old—even the very origin of literature. That rates a big so what? Music started out with folks beating on hollow trees with bones, but that doesn’t mean I want to listen to it. The same is true of reading Beowulf.
Of course, Zemeckis and screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary aren’t really concerned with bringing anything like a literal translation of the thing to the screen. They’re mostly using the basics and the names to unleash yet another Olde World epic on us—one of those movies where everyone screams their lines while staggering around gloomy settings for the delight of armchair barbarian fans, who have convinced themselves that they actually like to drink mead (or what currently passes for it). I’ve no doubt the movie will be popular, and I’ve no doubt that I’ll be on the receiving end of hate mail for not recognizing the film’s supposed greatness as one of the spectacles of our time. I’d be dishonest, though, if I didn’t say that I found all but the last 20 minutes of the movie a colossal bore—enlivened to some small extent by the 3-D jiggery pokery of the version I watched, and the tendency of the movie to be unintentionally funny.
For anyone who wasn’t subjected to the story in a literature class, Beowulf tells the story of the loutish title character, who comes to the land of King Hrothgar to do battle with an unsavory monster named Grendel, who is terrorizing the place. Here Beowulf is even more loutish—prone to announcing himself (“I am Beowulf!”) so loudly that all I could think of was W.C. Fields explaining, “I always talk loud—I’m a sheriff!” in Six of a Kind (1934). Beowulf is played by Brit thespian Ray Winstone, who has been transformed by technology into a cartoon version of himself complete with a buff body Winstone himself could only dream of. This is the magic of movies in the 21st century, I guess.
Less fortunate is Crispin Glover as the monstrous Grendel. Glover has been transformed into a larger than life horror that looks like he was fashioned out of a moldy pizza. He screams a lot and speaks a language that sounds even less comprehensible than Welsh. He’s also naked and appears to have no genitals, which may go a long way toward explaining why he’s in such a bad mood. Now, since he’s naked, it naturally follows that Beowulf will do battle with him in a similar state. This peculiar approach causes a problem for the filmmakers, since the movie wants a PG-13 rating and Beowulf presumably does have genitals—impressive ones to judge by the manner in which Mrs. King Hrothgar (Robin Wright Penn) regards his nakedness. We will never know for sure, since the film briefly turns into Bart Simpson’s nude scene from The Simpsons Movie—minus the money shot—via artfully posed legs and carefully positioned objects that obscure the essential body parts in every shot. (It’s really too bad because there’s a certain amusement value in the idea of technicians having to stick the motion sensor devices to Winstone’s privates in order to capture the proper movement.)
Even stripped mother-naked, Beowulf handily disposes of his opponent (pausing to announce who he is, of course), but all this really accomplishes is to annoy Grendel’s doting mama played by an animatedly naked Angelina Jolie (with stiletto heels!) doing her Countess Dracula voice from Alexander. Instead of exacting any normal revenge on Beowulf, she seduces him and offers one of those great rewards with a built-in “you’ll regret this” catch to it. Naturally, Beowulf falls into her trap, and imitation Excalibur (1981) heavy drama ensues. It’s all very grim and rather silly—until Beowulf’s dragon progeny arrives on the scene for the big climax of mayhem and destruction. At that point it’s all very exciting and silly, but at least it’s exciting.
Technically, the movie is fairly impressive—at least in 3-D (I can’t imagine bothering with the 2-D version). Zemeckis uses the 3-D gimmick quite well and that alone affords some novelty and amusement value. The problem is that it’s all at the service of a magnificently uninvolving story about characters who are neither likable nor interesting. The best I can say for it is that it beats actually reading the original. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sexual material and nudity.