“Behaviour that’s admired is the path to power among people everywhere.” — Beowulf
Hey, kids, Beowulf is better than 300!
Three points need to be made right from the get-go.
One: If you go, take the extra effort (and shillings) to see Beowulf in 3-D on the largest screen in your area. It’s quite spectacular.
Two: Yes. This is an animated movie (via the magic of rotoscope, a process that has come a long way since director Robert Zemeckis used it on The Polar Express). No. It is most definitely not Ratatouille. There’s plenty of suggestiveness and faintly veiled nudity to warrant its PG-13 rating, not to mention the violence that goes with the territory of dragon slaying, monster fighting and boisterous mead drinking.
Three: Beowulf is a poem, written sometime between the seventh and tenth centuries (as Terry Gilliam would no doubt quip, on a Saturday, noon-ish). It’s an “Olde English” poem loaded with heroism and beer. Sweet! (The movie’s dialogue is snappy and modern, so fear not ye who hath by Shakespeare’s tongue not been enchanted.)
That said, let’s get on with this character named Beowulf, one who inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to write a highly influential paper about the poem before Middle-earth became familiar turf. His paper turned heads and put the poem in a new light.
That’s a good thing, because the adventurous Geat (in modern-day terms, Swede) is one heck of a grandiose character. When he treks over to Denmark in 507 A.D. to slay a monster terrorizing people at Heorot Hall, he introduces himself by very directly saying, “I am Beowulf. I am here to kill your monster!”
Grendel, Girls, Glory, Gold
The villagers like a good, loud party. Unfortunately for them, the nasty neighborhood monster, named Grendel (Crispin Glover, Wild at Heart), does not. Driven mad by their revelry, Grendel wreaks havoc on the raucous villagers, literally tearing people apart.
But Beowulf (Ray Winstone, The Departed) is one tough soldier of glory and he takes on Grendel. In the buff.
Unfortunately, doing so catches the attention of Grendel’s mother. She comes to Beowulf in a vision, as the queen. And he awakes in the morning to see the devastation she leaves behind, a mass of corpses hanging from the rafters.
A little irked that the challenge has grown to execute an entire “family tree” of monsters, Beowulf nonetheless goes on an excursion to find Grendel’s mother. In doing so, he falls into the same trap that tormented King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins, Titus), who knows a dirty little secret about Grendel’s vengeance.
Therein is this Beowulf’s strong suit. Amid the extravagant effects and action set pieces, there ebbs a fantastic cautionary tale about seduction, greed, vanity, and living a life of lies.
The original Beowulf is a truly great story, one that relishes in the elements of high adventure, bravery, and heroism.
But how faithful is the movie to the original poem? Well, some will say it’s extremely faithful, their memory recalling the demon, the mother, and the dragon; others will say not at all, and most of them, on either side of the divide, will not have read it themselves. So, in comparison to Seamus Heaney’s sterling, highly readable translation, let’s just say you better not base your homework strictly on the movie.
In short, the movie’s posters declare “Pride is the curse” but the original poem was virtually a salute to the value of pride and honor.
While the movie closely follows the poem up through the slaying of Grendel in the first act, things rapidly go in divergent directions from there even as the key challenges that Beowulf faces remain the same. There’s Grendel, there’s Grendel’s mother, and there’s the dragon.
There’s a new back story, however, which takes the material in a wildly different direction that is actually mighty, mighty interesting. The screenplay, written by graphic novelist Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, who won an Oscar for his work on Pulp Fiction, brings all three of those challenges into one related theme that makes for a surprisingly thoughtful reinterpretation of the poem.
Still, there are some diversions that are a little annoying, particularly given the film’s hype, grandeur, and promising accessibility to younger audiences (let’s face it, PG-13 is more or less the equivalent of PG in 1984). Given the source material and the 3-D medium the film’s makers are so eager to exploit, the amount of sexual themes and faux nudity is a little off-putting and unnecessary.
The Devil Wears High Heels
Another major twist is the film’s jab at Christianity, declaring that man has become the monster in the wake of the Christ God. Beowulf’s situation doesn’t lend itself to prayer, it is said; instead it’s time for a hero. That’s an intriguing theme to throw in the works, particularly given the movie’s new “sins of the father” storyline. But it’s also totally contrary to the source material, in which all the main characters are described as God-fearing to some degree or another, and which describes Grendel as a grim demon banished by God to roam among Cain’s clan.
In playing down the sense of honor, the film bulks up on a bunch of hokum, particularly the awkward staging of Beowulf battling Grendel in the altogether. Yeah, there is a reference to Beowulf’s bare hands in that poem, but come on now. How much more liberal a poetic license can one take than that?
Well, there’s also that moment when Grendel’s mother (seductively played by Angelina Jolie, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) shifts from an ugly water demon to a knockout woman (in the nude, of course). As she approaches Beowulf, her snake-like tale belies her true nature. And then there are those feet, built like a pair of demonic high heels. Maybe there’s a double entendre even in that humorous little visual gag.
Take this Beowulf for what it is, a reinvention of a 1,000-year-old story spun with many modern day sensibilities and a marvelous visual flair.
Sure, the actors still look a little plasticine. But, while some moments look like they belong in a Shrek movie, there are others that are truly breathtaking and at times the action seems more like a full-blown live action movie than its rotoscoped cousin.