The giant strides into Mead Hall and bellows, "I am Beowulf, and I'm here to kill your monster." That's how Hollywood turns a Danish warrior from an eighth-century Old English epic into a movie hero. Deep-voiced announcer: "He's big. He's bold. And he's boastful... He's Beowulf."
Some critics have already chided Robert Zemeckis's new animated feature, written by Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman, for insufficient fidelity to its fabled source. I have to confess I can't remember even sleeping through the poem in high-school English class. So my only, ignorant criterion has to be: Is Beowulf a good movie?
On this exam, mark Y for Yes. It's got power and depth, and two kings whose greatness is diluted by hubris, and a thrilling dragon fight, and the demon Grendel as a tortured outcast, and a naked monster who looks a lot like Angelina Jolie. In their use of "performance capture," a technique that fans of traditional animation view with the sternest skepticism, the film's makers have managed to show more acute behavioral emotion, as well as some fantastic images uncapturable in live action. You want to read Beowulf? Get the book, I'm not stopping you. You want bloody adventure with a brain, see the movie.
The story will be familiar even to those who don't know the poem. The kingdom of old Hrothgar (voiced and modeled by Anthony Hopkins) is troubled by the predatory sorties of Grendel (Crispin Hellion Glover). Accompanied by his "14 brave thanes," Beowulf (Ray Winstone) comes across the sea to slay the monster and, not incidentally, add another laurel to his own legend. He repels a Grendel attack on Mead Hall, severing the beast's arm. Grendel limps back to his lair, where his mother she has no name, so we'll call her Grendma watches him die. When Beowulf discovers the lair, Grendma reveals herself in the form of a beautiful seductress (Jolie). He returns to Mead Hall declaring that he killed both monster and mother, but displaying only Grendel's head. Many years later, when Beowulf has succeeded Hrothgar as king, his land is threatened by a dragon. Now Beowulf must vanquish one last monster. And this time, it's personal.
The movie is opening today in two formats: 3-D in 650 IMAX theaters, 2-D on another 2,500 screens. IMAX is the way the movie was conceived, and the way to see it. Not only because stuff is hurled out at you, but because being surrounded by the huge screen focuses your attention on the story.
Sorry, but those special glasses are mandatory. Back in the ‘50s, when Hollywood made a couple dozen 3-D movies, skeptics said that kids would never go for the cellophane and cardboard polarized glasses (one eye with a red filter, one with a green), because they knew that bullies laid the "four eyes" taunt on the visually impaired. Glasses over your glasses would make you "six eyes." The 3-D fad died out in a few years, but it took ages for the technology to improve. As recently as 2005, those same cheesy specs were handed out at screenings of Robert Rodriguez's The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D. The glasses at 3-D attractions in theme parks were a little less ornery and more advanced, as were the ones used for Polar Express an apt title, by the way, considering the polarized glasses used.
Arriving at Beowulf is still like visiting the optometrist: the movie screen is an eye chart, with pictures instead of letters. But the glasses are kinda cool, like wrap-around Ray-Bans larger, because the IMAX screen fills most of your field of vision, and less distracting than the old kind. Just don't tilt your head; suddenly everything gets blurry.
That might be a blessing in the early scenes, which have as much peeing and belching as a PG-13 rating will allow, and where the strangely Shrekish-looking Hrothgar staggers about drunkenly in a toga that is ever in danger of slipping off his mammoth body. It also takes a while to grow accustomed to the faces of Hrothgar, his wife Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn) and the oily counselor Unferth (John Malkovich). The faces have lines and creases, but they don't look lived in. This quibble subsides when Beowulf appears. The political drama of the palace is instantly amped up to mythical stature, and we can start appreciating the film for what is is: a live-action cartoon.
But with pathos, as much for monster as for man. Grendel is a horror, a plague, to Hrothgar's kingdom, but he seems plaintive, lonely, in his cave. He complains to his mother in some Scandivanian tongue, as if Gollum had shown up in a Bergman film. Up close he has the physiognomy of Rondo Hatton, the actor whose acromegalic face got him roles as villains in ‘40s mysteries and horror films. Grendel too seems typecast for villainy, but maybe the humans just don't understand how close he is to them. Why, they might be kin.
Similarly, Beowulf is a flawed hero. His bravery and resourcefulness in battle are unquestioned, but he's a bit too comfortable as his own legend-maker. In an attack by the Frisians, he humiliates one warrior but doesn't kill him; "Give him a gold piece and send him home. He has a story to tell." Before confronting Grendel, he strips himself naked. (Battling in the buff is a major motif this year, in 300 and Eastern Promises.) As Beowulf leaps from one end of the Hall to the other, the movie treats you to more cutesy-poo hide-the-penis shots than in Bart's skateboard ride in The Simpsons Movie.
His ego also gives him a weakness for the ladies. Once he becomes king, he marries Hrothgar's widow but keeps a younger blond (Alison Lohman) on the side. And in his showdown with Grendma, he's simply out of his shallows. She appears to him drenched in gold, with high-heeled feet and nipples pert enough to hang a horseshoe on. When her hand touches Beowulf's sword, it turns to water, even as his resolve melts away at her caress. Ulysses may have resisted the sirens, but Beowulf's self-regard leads him to think he can bed Grendma and then best her. All of which leads to the illuminating observation that even a hero of legend is first and always a man.
The kids aren't likely to parse the fine points of the script's psychology. They and their parents will be wowed by the battle scenes, a nifty sea-monster montage and Beowulf's climactic dogfight with a dragon. No question you lose a little character nuance in "character capture"; they don't look quite real. But the effects scenes look realer, more integrated into the visual fabric, because they meet the traced-over live-action elements halfway. It all suggests that this kind of a moviemaking is more than a stunt. By imagining the distant past so vividly, Zemeckis and his team prove that character capture has a future.
And Beowulf is a colorful pre-Christmas present.