Just in time for the holiday season, when we gorge ourselves with Henry VIII size drumsticks, and get toasty 'round the fire listening to fairy tales of winter's past, comes Beowulf, a yarn almost as old as Anglo-Saxony itself. The IMAX 3-D presentation makes the most convincing argument for not waiting for the DVD, as getting too stoned on tryptophan may deprive you of the, literally, much larger than life action that producer/director Robert Zemeckis packs in this pic.
This is no Jaws 3-D laugh fest - though it's got more teeth and tear - and you won't feel like you're watching a remake of 13 Ghosts (Bobby already tried that), but instead you will be so very tempted to reach out and see if you can grab a hold of that dragon and go for the ride of your life.
Set in sixth-century Denmark, King Hrothgar's (Anthony Hopkins) court seems drunk on mead and swine, the life of the party is the old stumbling and bloated man, himself; to the annoyance of his young queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn). With majestic establishing shots, we see the two-foot-deep snow covered roof of their great mead hall, Heorot, the bitter cold is contrasted by the golden light that comes from the glowing fire and wood on the inside. And even as this is the picture of the highlife, Norse edition, something seems strained between the King and Queen, and we learn that he's still in the doghouse for an old indiscretion. If you've ever been to a party that was shut down by the fuzz because of a tip from a pissed-off neighbor, then consider yourself lucky to have made it home, because Grendel - the monster next door, played by Crispen Glover - wasn't so kind. The ghastly giant crashes into their social hall and proceeds to munch and crunch on anyone he can grab, except the king and his second in command, Unfurt, who hid until the carnage was over.
The King fears upsetting the monster again so much that he insists on closing the mead hall for drinking and cheering; which is much more than a buzz kill for the citizens, it means the end of their way of life, for good. In comes Beowulf (Ray Winstone): the bold, brash, and brawny hero from Geatland who has offered to take on Grendel. Unfurth greets his arrival like a housecat jealous of the new Great Dane, and immediately challenges the accuracy of Beowulf's most recounted victory. But he would soon change his opinion of the man, once Beowulf backs up his braggadocio with unblinking courage, taking out the monster in the buff, no less. Glover plays Grendel with guttural genius, breathing in tormented humanism into the technical wizardry that brings this memorable creature to life. Assuming the peace was restored, the town begins to celebrate in the mead hall once again, only to be attacked by an enemy even more dangerous than Grendel - his vengeful mama. As much damage as she's capable of, Angelina Joli's she-creature comes right out of the pages of Penthouse, and as Beowulf soon finds out, can be much more seductive than scary. Unfert shows his new allegiance by giving the warrior his prized sword, Hrunting, but it would do no good against the sexy beast. And so Beowulf must take a more hands-on approach. This is also where screenwriters, Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman, make the epic-porm their own, taking full advantage of dramatic license.
Like the "Cat's in the Cradle," history tends to repeat, and Hrothgar bequeaths everything to Beowulf, who he's treated like the son he never had: the kingdom, his fare Wealthow, and even the curse that came between the couple's union. The curse will come back to haunt them in the form of a fiery dragon, and in a battle that seems to have already been etched in gold and adorned with precious stone, Beowulf fights with great valor to save his people and win back his virtue. The film paints Beowulf as warrior of great natural ability, but flawed by flights of fancy. What happens when we come face to face with our tallest tale?
The bloody limb-a-thon that is Beowulf will surely please those that liked 300 and 30 Days of Night, and it's perfect for the Warcraft set; but its also got as much kitsch the as Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland - only it's Goth. We're talking about a story that is older than Gandalf, as J.R.R. Tolkien was influenced by Beowulf; even writing a paper in defense of Grendel. Oddly enough, the Lord of the Rings connection doesn't end there: Robert Zemeckis was the executive producer of the Peter Jackson directed, The Frighteners, and I don't believe for a second that Ray Winstone's cartoonization into Sean Bean's, "Boromir," wasn't a calculated scheme to evoke the mental connection to the gigantic franchise. Like Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis has flair for giving his "propers" to the technical achievement of yesteryears sci-fi; Beowulf's fight with the Grendal takes on Harryhausen proportions, it's just lo-tech enough to bring you back those afternoons watching Sinbad movies all day.
Some may feel lucky that Angelina Joli appears in this film in any form, cartoon or not, but let's just say on the IMAX screen - vavoom. In Wild Things meets Goldfinger style she emerges from the water looking snaky and sexy, and the actress is convincing as both a temptress and a mother. Beowulf reinforces the cliché about hell and female scorn because both men have to face the wrath; while some ladies reactions are harsher than others, Grendel's Mother, the Queen, and Ursula (Beowulf's nymph), have all been neglected by men. But if you want to talk about growing up with abandonment issues, look no further than that disgusting monster heading your way. Grendel is further proof that a two-parent home is clearly the best way to go, as growing up a bastard can really mess you up.
John Malkovich could do no wrong as Unferth, and considering his level of craftsmanship he seemed underused; perhaps it's predictable, but they planted the seed for Unfurth to be more of the wily, and it seems a let down that he allow Beowulf to walk-in and take what should have been his inheritance. But more important than the concepts of lust, betrayal, and revenge, is Beowulf's recognition of the great transition between the pagan world and the Christian world; and what it meant to be a hero in both of those eras. When Odin was in charge men ran rampant looking for riches and bitches, but when Christ came to town it all changed from hero worship to martyrdom; kind of like when the narcissism and debauchery of heavy metal (sing Led Zep's "The Immigrant Song") gave way to the humble and guilt-ridden piety of grunge (sing Nirvana's "All Apologies") - and heaven knows, that's no place for Beowulf.
Beowulf is backed up by an effective soundtrack, especially when the music somehow weeps for Grendel. There's no doubt that this is one those examples where the special effects alone make it worth the trek to the theatre, however, Beowulf reminds me that despite us being jaded, the technology still isn't where it needed to be. It felt like they were playing three card monte with us; wowing with some crazy animated crane shots and some amazing human detail (It's like Hopkins,' was really in this movie. We can see the pores in his bloated tummy, and feel genuine embarrassment for the Oscar winner when Hrothgar experiences a bit of the ol' wardrobe malfunction) so we don't notice the herky-jerky motion when our characters are riding horses, or the fact that some characters look unrendered. Considering the marquee value of the cast, one would almost prefer to see DNA generated flesh and bone over computer generated pixels; real sweat and blood (even if it's Hershey's syrup) will always have a bigger impact. But it's not like Zemeckis doesn't have experience mixing live-action with animation, this is the man that gave us Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but there's another cat out there that could have been called for some advice - and that's Ralph Bakshi. It's ironic, but the Fritz The Cat director could of also taught him a thing or two about drawing the line between adult fantasy and family fantasy. Bakshi's 1978 version of LOTR shows a lot more restraint than the Heavy Metal Magazine/Movie-inspired layouts in Beowulf (just check out Grendel's Mother's F-me-pumps. . . gives new meaning to the song, "Stacy's Mom"). Sure the Frank Frazetta-inspired animation in Fire & Ice straddled the line again, but at least he never tried to pull off cheap Austin Powers bits (almost literally) like Zemeckis did.
It's almost bizarre to be accusing the guy who brought back Smalltown U.S.A. via Michael J. Fox and "Hip To Be Square," of crassness, but it's a little suspicious to be working the 300 crowd with the Shrek meets Polar Express -look; and doesn't anyone else find it odd that the MPAA would have given Beowulf an R-rating if the film wasn't animated, but live action, even though they filmed real people in the first place? It's like you took a picture of a naked woman and some bloody body parts you could send it to Playboy or Fangoria, but if you slapped some ink on the picture you could show it to your kids. I don't have a problem with the film's PG-13 rating, but it's usually more of a suggestion that'll leave you sitting next to a crying baby or a kid eating popcorn when Joli's nipples come shooting off the screen like arrows to your eye -sockets. I would recommend that if you're planning on seeing Beowulof on the big-screen, that you see it on the really big screen, because once the IMAX envelops your eyes and senses, it will completely block out all of these criticisms and rock you like no other movie can this winter.
Why are our days numbered and not, say, lettered?