CAPSULE: Robert Zemekis's adaptation of the story of Beowulf is actually exciting and shows great imagination throughout. The oldest story in the English language (dating from about AD 700) combines with state of the art graphic technology to create a fast-paced and exhilarating heroic adventure. This film does a lot that is very hard to get right and most of it, it does get it right. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
At the same time that I am seeing BEOWULF, which I think represents some sort of new high in action and adventure in the animated film, I am also seeing digital 3D for what is, I think, the first time. Each did good things for the other. The two combined make for some genuinely thrilling action. The film is right on the borderline between animation and live action. We see real actors like Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie probably caught with motion capture and represented in animated form.
The first half of Robert Zemekis's BEOWULF is pretty much the story of Beowulf as it came down to us from Old English. The second half takes some large liberties, but it unifies what are really two different stories and cements them into more of a cohesive union. The adaptation is by the incomparable Neil Gaiman and Oscar-winning Roger Avary and generally where they take liberties they are well-considered and do make for a better story. The story could have been reduced to a thud-and-blunder action film, but the script has real characters and some psychological complexity. Gaiman seems to be involved in a lot of fantasy films these days and he may become to the fantasy film what Philip K. Dick belatedly became to the science fiction film. One odd touch was to have Grendel speak in Old English while everyone else speaks in more modern English. Everyone should have spoken Old English or no one should have.
The art design animation is imaginative and even audacious. For example, the visualization and presentation of Grendel is an idea I have not seen before. He appears as nearly human but distorted by extreme deformity and constantly in the throes of agony. It is almost painful to watch him. His super-strength seems to come from his torment like strength of a man who is on fire. The dragon in the film is at least imaginative though reminiscent of DRAGONSLAYER's Vermithrax Pejorative. The latter dragon has been the prototype of every flying dragon that has been shown on the screen since. The animation allows the viewer to fly with the dragon and fluidly move all around him. So those are two good monsters. The one real miscalculation is the representation of Grendel's mother. In the poem she is another fearsome looking monster. In the film she looks like Angelina Jolie has ran afoul of Goldfinger and then had some appendages added.
Then the animation is highly imaginative and full of little surprises. At one point we are looking from the rafters down into Wrothgar's great hall. Suddenly we realize we are seeing the scene from the eyes of a rat who then scurries down this perilous walkway. The fluidity of the animation makes the scene. The animated humans do not always look quite and when they miss, they miss in the same way that the humans in SHREK do not look quite human. But through the animation Anthony Hopkins as Hrothgar is able to give his most vital and . . . well . . . animated performance in years. Of course it is getting harder and harder to define exactly what a performance actually means in a digitally animated film. For all we know Hopkins could have given his entire performance from the comfort of an easy chair and body doubles could have been used for the motion capture. But at times the viewer definitely has the feeling that Hopkins is there performing in shots so close you can see the pores of the skin on his nose.
One letdown is the score by Alan Silvestri. It simply fails to be in anyway exceptional or have any surprises. This is a film that sadly needed a Jerry Goldsmith or a Basil Poledouris. What was needed was music that was as picturesque as the images on the screen. The score should have told us more than merely "this scene is exciting." It should have created some impressive musical images.
This is certainly the greatest screen excitement I have had this year, in spite of some shortcomings of the script. BEOWULF gets a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10. It would be interesting to see what Ray Harryhausen thinks of this film. He really was the father of this sort of recreation of myth with the animated image. BEOWULF owes a lot to THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0442933/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper