Movie Review 2007 #147: Beowulf

On Friday, I went to see the Robert Zemeckis version of Beowulf, starring Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie and Robin Wright Penn, done entirely in CGI.
I am going to give a mostly spoiler free review here, and in a subsequent entry, go into far more, spoilerish detail.

Beowulf is done entirely in CGI, including the actors, in a technique premiered in movies like The Polar Express. Some of the creepier aspects of this technique have been improved, although I don’t think its perfect as yet. Still, a lot of books difficult to film in standard techniques might reasonably be done with these methods now. (A Princess of Mars, for example.)
The movie Beowulf only loosely follows the epic poem Beowulf. The screenplay, written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary makes a lot of changes, and not just for the sake of the PG-13 demographic either.
In Beowulf the movie, Hrothgar’s raising of the mead hall Heorot brings the ire of Grendel, a nearby monster who cannot stand the sounds of merriment from the mead hall. He makes his displeasure known by coming to ransack and slay those who offend him so. The darkness of Grendel’s blight brings heroes to Hrothgar’s kingdom, including the title character.
And even as Beowulf prepares to face off against the monster, things are set in motion that will keep Beowulf there, as King himself…
I was of mixed feelings about the story. There are numerous divergences from the original, and I speak not only of Angelina Jolie as a seductive, demonic “Grendel’s Mother”. There are subplots and intimations nowhere present in the original, and I suspect there are aspects of this that perhaps even the screenwriters didn’t intend.
So, going into the movie, yes, there are confrontations with Grendel, Grendel’s Mother and the Dragon (at the end of Beowulf’s life). I think, since its clearly meant to be the “screen stopper”, the fight with the Dragon comes off the best. Even if the Dragon is really a fire-breathing Wyvern, given that its only two legged. 😉
The visuals work well. I didn’t see any obvious anachronisms and in point of fact, the movie looks like it went out of the way to make it look like 6th Northern Europe, from weapons and armor to the buildings. With the CGI, it did look a little videogame ish, but it was an immersive experience in that environment.
My friend and I didn’t see the 3-d version. However, numerous times through the movie, I could see where the 3-d effect would have been. I don’t think that this really added to the film, and these tricks could have been left out.
As far as the acting, well, subtle facial expressions and nuances are still not the forte of this medium. So it is difficult to rate the acting other than the voices, and dialogue. Its good to see old Ray Winstone get to play an action hero again. The other actors are a mixed bag. Hopkins’ Hrothgar is a drunken lout. I wasn’t too happy with Malkovich’s Unferth, either. Penn’s Weathlow is a little wasted in this movie, too. Gleeson’s Wiglaf does pretty well as Beowulf’s right hand man. Jolie’s character is strong. Enough so that I will discuss her in my other post in depth.
One note of caution though. The movie is rated PG 13, and I don’t understand how, unless the reviewers felt CGI allowed them to lower the rating. There is a lot of violence, and a surprising amount of nudity (and again, I am not speaking solely of Angelina Jolie).
Overall, from an action adventure standpoint, Beowulf delivers. On that alone, I recommend it. Its just NOT the original tale. Accept that, and you may enjoy it.