Beowulf

Movie Information

The Story: The legendary epic poem (that literature teachers have tortured students with for years) about the heroic Beowulf fighting the monster Grendel comes to the big screen. The Lowdown: Technically impressive (at least in 3-D), but dramatically rather dull for anyone who isn't a diehard fan of ancient fantasy.
Score:

Genre: Quasi-animated Horror Fantasy
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Ray Winstone, Robin Wright Penn, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich
Rated: PG-13

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.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

16 thoughts on “Beowulf

  1. Chip Kaufmann

    Having sat through the 2-D as well as the 3-D version (in the same day no less), I’m inclined to agree with Roger Ebert that a lot of BEOWULF is intentionally funny though in a slyly humorous way (King Hrothgar referring to Grendel’s mother “Did you kill the monster?, Beowulf:”I laid her…in the grave.”). The hidden genitals scene strikes me that way as well, it’s just too deliberate. However if Zemeckis & Co. intended it to be that way it was lost on the Friday night audience who sat there stonefaced (or is that stoned-face). For more on my take on BEOWULF see the December issue of Rapid River magazine.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I just don’t think the movie is intentionally funny. If it is, it’s a terrific joke on the target audience, who, as you note, seem to be taking it very seriously indeed. Then again, I still don’t get the appeal of this motion capture gimmick that makes all the characters look like Wayans Brothers in WHITE CHICKS. (See also the creepy, rubber-faced Santa Claus in the new Coke commercial running before the movie.)

  3. Chip Kaufmann

    I must admit that I enjoyed BEOWULF especially the second time around when I wasn’t distarcted by the 3-D effects. In addition to EXCALIBUR I saw direct references to Richard Fleischer’s THE VIKINGS (the funeral ship), Jack Cardiff’s THE LONG SHIPS (the golden horn), and DRAGONSLAYER. I do agree with your assessment of the motion capture technique which could lead to dispensing with live actors altogether so that everyone looks perfect. It could be called THE STEPFORD WIVES school of filmmaking.

  4. Ken Hanke

    I detected the EXCALIBUR and VIKINGS references as well. The thing is I’d much rather have been watching either of those movies. At least in the case of the former, I actually had some emotional investment in the characters — something completely lacking in BEOWULF. I mean, did you really care what happened to any of these quasi-animatronic characters?

  5. Chip Kaufmann

    Not in the characters themselves but in their similarity to other cinematic situations which still carry some emotional impact (Beowulf’s death reminded me of Lancelot’s death in EXCALIBUR) which is due to Boorman, Fleischer & Co. not Zemeckis.

  6. Orbit DVD

    It’s rare that I’m in disagreement with Ken, but this is one of my favorite big budgeted films of the year.

    I think the humor is lost on some reviewers. Most people know who Neil Gaiman is by now, but Roger Avery won an Oscar for co-writing PULP FICTION, as well as write and direct KILLING ZOE and RULES OF ATTRACTION, two brutal and very funny films. His humor is all over BEOWULF.

    It’s easily the best film made for 3D (I’m not counting NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS) and is a great way to show off the technology.

    Check it out, with your tongue firmly in your cheek!

    marc

  7. Dionysis

    I find that when crummy movies are reviewed here, more often than not I enjoy the wit employed by Ken, and often laugh out loud (Justin’s too, at times). The short reviews are more entertaining the the films reviewed.

    In any case, as soon as I saw the television trailer for this, I groaned. Not another ridiculous-looking pseudo-animated exercise in mediocrity. Sigh.

    While this may irritate fans, I would sooner watch my cat vomit than films like POLAR EXPRESS, 300 or this nonsense.

    I just happened to receive a DVD I ordered with two really entertaining peplum films: Steve Reeves’ GOLIATH AND THE BARBARIANS and the rare GOLIATH AND THE VAMPIRES with Gordon Scott, both in ‘TotalScope’ widescreen with great image quality. Those flicks are far more worth watching, I would guess, than something like this.

  8. Ken Hanke

    “Roger Avery won an Oscar for co-writing PULP FICTION, as well as write and direct KILLING ZOE and RULES OF ATTRACTION, two brutal and very funny films. His humor is all over BEOWULF.”

    I know who Avary is and I’d agree with the idea that ZOE and especially ATTRACTION are brutal and funny, but I don’t see any sign of either here. Seems more in keeping with his screenplay for SILENT HILL to me — and while I actually like SILENT HILL (apart from the clunky set-up and the stupid tag scene), the script is hardly one of its strong points.

  9. Ken Hanke

    “I would sooner watch my cat vomit than films like POLAR EXPRESS, 300 or this nonsense.”

    Vivid, but undeniably succinct.

  10. “So this is a movie? I thought it was a video game. It looks like a video game. I’m still waiting for a Monty Python inspired Song of Roland.”

    Oh, there’s a video game too…

    Personally, I felt the whole film was a mockery of the whole chest thumping 300 style of films. When Beowulf yells, “I… AM… BEOWULF!” it is almost exactly the same as the 300’s “THIS… IS… SPARTA!” At that point I knew the whole movie is a joke and had a great time with it. Oh, and Pants, I definitely saw some allusions to the Holy Grail.

    marc

  11. Ken Hanke

    “I knew the whole movie is a joke”

    Well, that part I won’t argue, but I just don’t get the joke in any intentionally funny sense. I don’t think the movie is making fun of “THIS…IS…SPARTA!” so much as trying to cash in on it. And based on Chip’s comments about the audiences he saw it with, it sounds like it’s zippin’ right on by most folks if it is supposed to be funny.

    I will give it this much — I only disliked it and found it painfully boring. I was not offended by it, which puts it ahead of 300.

  12. Rob Close

    if you think mead tastes bad, there’s some delicious stuff they sell over at the FBFC – wine made out of honey, them barbarians at least did something right. highly recommended.

  13. Nam Vet

    I’m glad I chose to watch “Love in the Time of Cholera” instead. It is a very good movie. Sounds like Beowolf is a piece of junk, just as I suspected it would be.

  14. Will Wallace

    Another hack job movie. Some hollyweird twerp takes a classic piece of literature and “punches up” the plot. Just like that Dutch dumbass who ruined Starship Troopers, or the perversion of I Robot by some stooge(s). They’re even remaking classic movies and screwing them up. Leave off you talentless bunch of imbeciles.

  15. pvc

    The best I can say for it is that it beats actually reading the original

    I almost always agree with your reviews, but I have to call you out on this last statement. Beowulf is a rich, engaging piece of literature, if you’re reading the right translation(s). Go pick up and read the Seamus Haney edition and then tell me this movie “beats actually reading the original.”

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