Beowulf (2007)

Rating: ***
Release Date: 11/16/2007
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay: Neil Gaiman, Roger Avary
Music: Alan Silvestri
Special Effects Consultant: Ken Ralston
Cast: Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Crispin Glover, Angelina Jolie

An updated and more accessible version of the epic heroic poem, utilizing state of the art motion capture and computer animation technology. King Hrothgar's (Sir Anthony Hopkins) kingdom is plagued by a monster known as Grendel (superbly creepy Crispin Glover), who brings death and horror whenever the townsfolk engage in merriment. Along comes the great hero Beowulf (Ray Winstone) to slay the beast, and in doing so inherits Hrothgar's throne as well as his curse. Falling victim to Grendel's mother's (Angelina Jolie) irresistible charms, he sires a dragon and dooms his kingdom. Father and son battle each other to the death as Beowulf attempts to break the cycle of the she-demon's curse.

Not being familiar with the original, I'm led to believe that the whole "sins of the father" theme was added as a way to tie all of the events together. In the poem, Beowulf kills Grendel's mother, whereas in the film she seduces both Hrothgar and Beowulf, who are both later tormented by the offspring of their unholy union with the she-demon. I think it works out rather well and gives a more dramatic and tragic element to the proceedings, although I'm sure the purists will disagree. Visually the film is spectacular and full of color and fantastic settings. While the character animation is superb, it stills falls into the Uncanny Valley of being creepy and distracting. The biggest problems are that the characters don't emote very convincingly, and that contact with other elements (particularly when gripping things) doesn't seem solid and tactile. Skin textures seem way too smooth, although by the time the third act starts and the characters have aged, it looks much better. Of special note, the animators even took the care and effort to add unruly ear hair to King Beowulf. Wow... The creature designs are quite good, and Grendel is a truly grotesque abomination that I found extremely unsettling. His rampages in the mead-house are shocking, terrifying, and utterly horrific - not something you would want young children to see, although there were plenty of them in the audience. The film also features the most screaming I think I've ever heard in a film, which also cranks up the disturbing factor. The dragon at the end of the film is very well realized and its movements are both powerful and graceful. Angelina Jolie's water demon is the most disappointing of the bunch as she is completely uninteresting. The suspension of disbelief is also shattered because your brain spends way too much time processing the fact that she really looks a lot like Ms. Jolie, but not quite enough. It's like she's a celebrity impersonator of herself. Very strange.

Story-wise, I found the first two thirds of the film tedious and uninteresting, but the final reel was riveting. The tired and broken King Beowulf is a much more interesting construct than the Hero Beowulf, and only in his old age do we begin to feel anything for him and his struggles. He's also more articulate and easier to understand, as the dialog of his younger years was crude and muddy from his constant yelling. The vocal performances of all the principals are quite good, but again, the character models have a hard time translating the emotional nuances to the screen. Overall, I found "Beowulf" to be both fascinating and disturbing, and while the updated story is more accessible to mainstream contemporary audiences, I felt it was still lacking in substance.