When drunken King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and his Queen (Robin Wright Penn) find their land besieged by the vile and wicked monster Grendel (Crispin Glover), they call on hero Beowulf (Ray Winstone) to slay the beast. With an ego to match his skill, Beowulf battles Grendel, only to find his hazardously tempting Mother (Angelina Jolie) a more conniving foe. After victory becomes his mythical imprisonment, Beowulf's talents are needed again when a dragon ravages the kingdom.
"Beowulf" is the most famous of poems. An epic adventure dating back to the year 700, the tale of heroism has been debated, explored, and CliffsNoted a thousand times over, but I'm positive it's never been envisioned quite like this movie. Visual magician (or director) Robert Zemeckis has snatched the poem and pried it open by way of intricate mo-cap execution, the same process that brought "Polar Express" to life in 2004, conceiving luxuriant primitive worlds for Beowulf to conquer and snarling enemies to fight. It's classic adventure storytelling, thrilling when the film eventually settles into its battle cry, and pinched raw by modern twists that hurl "Beowulf" away from a sleepy high school assignment and toward something genuinely unpredictable.
Certainly the screenplay by Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman does take time to get rolling, as it has difficulty shifting gears between Beowulf's brawling sense of war and his royal exhaustion. However, words are of little importance in this picture, since Zemeckis is serving up an overflowing basket of big screen treats, even offering the film in 3-D and IMAX formats (the preferred theatrical exhibition, lemme tell ya) to best grab the viewer by the throat.
Being a perfectionist and a firm believer in constructing shots instead of shooting for the edit, Zemeckis uses the freedom and fluidity of mo-cap to imagine Beowulf's towering feats of strength. Watching the title character slice sea creatures in half, leap on a flying dragon, or fight Grendel in the nude (the film's best sequence), it becomes clear that "Beowulf" is fearless with its staging. In the animation realm, Beowulf's stories of past glory can be executed to soaring heights, while his current troubles with creatures of all shapes and sizes drip with newfound flexibility, meticulously orchestrated in the director's imaginative, affectionately sustained shot list.
It's also nice to see animation with a little venom to it. As much as "Beowulf" is a tale of unmerciful violence, topped off with bodies ripped in half and bloodletting that would make Pixar faint, the running mood of the film is a decidedly hot blooded one.
Besides the aforementioned fight of the nude dudes (sold with amusing "Austin Powers" framing), the character of Grendel's Mother is presented as a lustful, gorgeous beast with a heavenly body and persuasive promises of satisfaction and fame upon delivery of a sexual favor. For reasons so obvious my teeth hurt, Angelina Jolie is ideal casting. Beowulf is a man of chest-thumping action and mead-swilling respect, taking thunderous pride in achievements both real and imagined. Yet, it makes sense that he would throw it all away for a taste of this gold-slicked mommy demon who can melt swords with a mere touch and a helping of sex kitten purr. Zemeckis couldn't have cast the she-devil better if he tried.
Don't let Paramount's atrocious marketing fool you, "Beowulf" is a film of great surprise and heart-stopping visual gusto. It also reaffirms Robert Zemeckis's place as a brilliant cinematic architect, still capable of eliciting eye-watering awe.