Movie Review: Beowulf

…directed by Robert Zemeckis, written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, starring the digtial replicants of Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, Ray Winstone, John Malkovich, Crispin Glover, as well as the awesome might of CGI.

If you want whining about motion-capture animation replacing real actors, complaints (or fanboy drooling) over digital nekkid Jolie, or hand-wringing about the PG-13 rating, go elsewhere. We are in the land of Beowulf now. That’s Beowulf, an original in the pantheon of mythic heroes, without whom there’s no Joseph Campbell thesis and therefore no Star War series; no Tolkien philology and no Lord of the Rings. Beowulf, the canonical epic poem in Old English, oldest manuscript in our language. Beowulf, who drinks, boasts, fights monsters, and philosophizes about it all later. About damn time he got his own big fat movie.

Beowulf provides a hearty dose of Norse goodness from the start. I was honestly more taken with the careful historic detail of King Hrothgar’s Great Hall and victory feast during the opening sequence than with anything to do with the CGI. Maybe it’s because I’ve played a lot of video games, or maybe I’d already accepted how this movie was produced before I even sat down, but I the format did not detract one iota from my viewing experience. The format allows you to have this perfectly gruesome Grendel (Crispin Glover!), awseome sea monster battles, and naked monster-wrestling all in the first act. And this is to say nothing of the truly epic dragon battle towards the end…

So yes, I liked the visual style. I enjoyed it. I’ve read a couple of reviews saying stuff like, this story deserves a more gritty earthy feel. I disagree with this critique. You get plenty of dirt and blood, wrinkles and scars, shadow and gloom. I only have one minor complaint about the CGI: some of the horse movements seemed off in a couple of scenes.

As for the movie’s narrative, it’s a straightforward but interesting take on the Beowulf story, just as you’d expect from someone like Neil Gaiman. For me the most interesting thematic arc centers around the definition of a hero, as understood and represented by Beowulf. This goes from the standard Viking attributes, strength, courage, reputation, power, to something that includes wisdom, mercy, and self-sacrifice. And it’s not a ham-fisted in-your-face transition; it’s something much more subtle and satisfying.

Also satisfying: the treatment of legend and story as it relates to this story. You get a sense of how important a good yarn must have been to the skalds of old. At several points the characters refer to “this is how it will be written and remembered”, which the film uses to its advantage. For those of us who know Beowulf, there’s the extra satisfaction of seeing the variations on the original text, a sort of: ah, so that’s what really happened when…

I enjoyed the subtle inclusion of Christianity in the North, represented by John Malkovich’s character, and how it had already begun to affect attitudes and beliefs. I enjoyed some of the signpost scenes representing important points in the Heroic Journey–nicely done, Zemeckis. And of course, Robert Z. is an acknowledged master of the action set-piece, and he provides two of them here in top form.

One criticism: a little disappointed the movie didn’t include more for the women. Sure, Jolie gets the meaty temptress/villainess role, with the gold-skin barbie doll CGI bod and plenty of manipulative vengeance on us silly males, but the other ladies don’t offer much. Queen Wealthow operates in a mal-defined space, somewhere between wise-woman and object-of-desire, which isn’t realized. And that’s about it. The wife wasn’t all that impressed with the film, I believe her response was, “I certainly wasn’t the target audience for this one”.

Be that as it may, Beowulf is certainly more deserving of your attention than most of that other tripe currently in theaters. It also made our list for Top Five Viking/Norse Movies: high praise, indeed.

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