In ancient times when Grendel (voice of Crispin Glover), a horrific monster, was slain to protect the Hall of Heorot and its inhabitants, the beast's mother (voice of Angelina Jolie) proves to be an even greater foe for the mighty warrior who slay her son, "Beowulf."
Director Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump") last toyed with rotoscoped animation with his "The Polar Express," a film that made children look creepy. I was hoping to be wow'ed by the look of "Beowulf," but was merely engaged. There's still something about recreated humans that just looks off, particularly in their eyes.
"Beowulf" the story (adapted from the ancient epic tale by Neil Gaiman ("Stardust") and Roger Avary ("Pulp Fiction," "The Rules of Attraction") has three chapters as Beowulf goes up against Grendel, then Grendel's mother, and finally, in his later years, a golden dragon whose parentage ties it back to Grendel. The tale is artful in its psychology, where monsters are born of human foible and given the characteristics of their fathers while retaining only the uglier physical aspects of their mother. Yet while it is Angelina Jolie's naked form which has been used to tout the film, hers is the least interesting segment (the decision to include 'high heels' extending from her bare feet was a lazy copout and annoying anachronism). Jolie's voice work recalls the mishmash accent she gave to another sexy mother in "Alexander" and there is nothing original about her seduction scene.
The tale begins with Danish King Hrothgar (voice of Anthony Hopkins) boasting about the safety of his hallowed hall, where his subjects gather to drink too much of his famous mead and try to score wenches. But they live in fear of Grendel, a hideously deformed giant, rotting child whose scaly skin and gill-like eardrum are inherited from mom. Hrothgar's much younger Queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn, "The Princess Bride") lives in bitter sadness knowing who fathered the monster, but all spirits lift when Beowulf (voice of Ray Winstone, doing his best Richard Burton impersonation) and his mighty warriors arrive by sea to rid them of their monster in return for Hrothgar's promised riches. Despite the jealous doubt of Hrothgar's advisor Unferth (voice of John Malkovich), Beowulf succeeds and his named by Hrothgar as his successor. Celebratory spirits are dashed, however, when Beowulf finds most of his and Hrothgar's men slain - the revenge of Grendel's mother. And so, Beowulf must dispatch yet another, but does he? Years later, Beowulf, who now claims the lovely Wealthow as his Queen, shows his human weaknesses by keeping a younger mistress, Ursula (voice of Alison Lohman), but when he is challenged by a mighty golden dragon come to destroy his kingdom, Beowulf once again rises to the challenge.
The film is explicit with its sex (treated humorously, even repeating the 'Austin-Powers-hide-the-naughty-bits' routine used recently in "The Simpsons Movie") and violence, where decapitations are commonplace. Some of the dialogue, especially with its overt hetero and homoerotic innuendo, is comical (and some of the action too - Beowulf decides he must fight Grendel naked and unarmed!). The religious symbolism inherent in the legend's themes are accentuated by the screenwriters with their references to the pagan god Odin giving way to the younger generation's new belief in Christianity, word of which is just arriving in Denmark.
"Beowulf" looks best when its camera swoops, as it does inventively with each transition from Heorot to Grendel's Den and back, or when that golden dragon attacks the silvery, snowy fortress from above. Yet for all the technical prowess on display, there is no real sense of discovery viewing the visuals of "Beowulf." It's a good looking film, unevenly paced. Gaiman and Avery deserve credit for making the "Beowulf" poem come full circle, but it is not the cinematic knockout I was hoping for.
Robin did not see this film.
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