I. AM. JUDGE JIM THOMAS!!!
Thus made their mourning the men of Geatland,
Beowulf gets around these days. You have 2005's Beowulf & Grendel, and then there's Grendel, a 2007 made-for-TV abomination from the Sci Fi Channel. In 2006 there was even an opera, Grendel, based on a John Gardner novel that presents the story from Grendel's perspective. Now director Robert Zemeckis follows up The Polar Express with his motion-captured take on the tale. In one of the extras, Zemeckis says that this is not the Beowulf that you were forced to read in high school; this movie is all about fighting, drinking, and fornicating—which is odd, since that really is what Beowulf is about. The changes in the plot have some inadvertent side effects, but the evidence clearly shows that this is a solid piece of entertainment.
Facts of the Case
Denmark, 507 A.D. King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs) is commemorating the opening of his new mead hall, Heorot. Here will his loyal thanes come to celebrate their victories and to receive gifts from their liegelord. The celebration turns to horror with the arrival of Grendel (Crispin Glover, Back to the Future), a brutish monster who savagely kills most of the celebrants. Hrothgar challenges Grendel to fight him, but Grendel looks at Hrothgar for several moments, and then flees shrieking into the darkness. Despondent, Hrothgar orders the doors of Heorot sealed until a hero arises who can deliver them from Grendel's bloodthirst.
Enter Beowulf (Ray Winstone, The Departed), a Geat warrior (the Geats were from southern Sweden) who arrives with his own band of men, including his trusted friend Wiglaf (Brenden Gleeson, 28 Days Later). Beowulf reopens Heorot and waits for the sound of merrymaking to bring Grendel. Beowulf defeats Grendel, tearing off his arm, and Beowulf is hailed as a hero, until a few days later when his men are killed in the middle of the night. Hrothgar reveals that it is the work of Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie, A Mighty Heart)—referred to henceforth as G-mom—the last of the great monsters.
Beowulf suits up for battle once more, but finds himself facing an enemy that may be beyond his ability to conquer; his fateful choice could spell doom for his people, himself, and his legacy.
There's no denying that Zemeckis pushes the limits of motion-capture animation past the achievements of The Polar Express. Freed from the limitations of physics, he stages massive pans, zooms, tracking shots that would make Orson Welles weep with envy; you name it, he goes for it. Watching the "making of" featurette, you can see the lengths to which Zemeckis goes to make the motion capture process as accurate as possible. At times it gets a bit out of hand—many shots are clearly designed to showcase 3-D, which the DVD doesn't offer—but the visuals do well to convey the epic sweep of the story. The kinks have not all been worked out of the system, mind you—subtle facial expressions still don't quite work, and clothing doesn't always drape quite right—but those are really minor problems, quickly forgotten in light of the magnificence of Wiglaf riding across a burning bridge. The voice casting is almost on a par with Pixar's standards—Winstone's gruff, boisterous voice booms across the landscape as he states his intentions. Robin Wright Penn's voice is warm yet firm, caring yet resolute. Brendan Gleeson steady baritone practically personifies loyalty and wise counsel. Crispin Glover's anguished voice brings an unexpected level of pain and pathos to Grendel, and Angelina Jolie simply drips sultry seduction. John Malkovich (Being John Malkovich) is suitable oily as Unferth, but suffers from weak characterization; in too many scenes he's relegated to Captain Exposition status. Still, his initial challenge of Beowulf's reputation is wonderfully realized; it's in the later scenes in the character seems to be around more for convenience than anything else.
Scholars have long held that the Beowulf tale was a wholly pagan creation, and that the poem was eventually written down by a Christian monk. The text supports that contention; all of the Christian-themed content consists of commentary on the action. In crafting the screenplay, writers Neil Gaiman (Stardust) and Roger Avery (Pulp Fiction) gave themselves two challenges. First, they wanted to try and read between the lines of the poem and capture the spirit of the poem before the Christian monks got their hands on it, and also to resolve the fragmented nature of the source. The original poem has two distinct sections, with no real connections between the two—Beowulf's adventures at Heorot, and his final battle with the dragon. Gaiman and Avery make some tweaks here, and make some wholesale changes there, seeking to capture the story before it received its Christian revision. From a narrative perspective, most of these changes are brilliant—they flesh out the characters, give them clearer motivations, and create a clear story arc. But at the same time, they create some unsettling thematic issues.
In the film, Christianity is just becoming known at the beginning of the movie, and has made significant inroads within Danish culture by the latter part of the movie. In the worldview of Beowulf's time, you fought for glory so that your name might live on after you; in that culture, fame was the only form of immortality available. That culture is clearly in place in the film. When Grendel first attacks, the scop (bard) is singing of Hrothgar's victory over a dragon—that, to these people, is true immortality. Heroic deeds, epic battles, and mighty conquests, and bragging about them all are means to one end—to ensure that one's name endures beyond death. When Beowulf cries, "I. AM. BEOWULF!!" as he tears off Grendel's arm, he is literally making a name for himself.
Christianity, of course, offers an entirely different path to immortality, one that does not require feats of daring and bravery. In the last act of the film, an old and battle-weary Beowulf comments that Christianity has ended the age of heroes. But really, Christianity is something of a red herring in the film; we see it taking root, but Christianity doesn't impact the plot in any meaningful fashion. What does impact the plot is Beowulf's decision to accept G-mom's offer. That choice tarnishes all that he has already accomplished, and it stymies an alternative means of immortality through one's offspring, as Wealthgar won't sleep with him because of his actions. By the end of the movie, the various representations of immortality have spun completely out of control: You have the true fame Beowulf gained from defeating Grendel, the false fame gained through the pact with G-mom, the lost chance at leaving a legacy through children, and the somewhat problematic legacy of his actual offspring. When the dust has settled and Beowulf lies dying, his legacy remains intact only because he dies before he can tell Wiglaf the truth. In addition, while the dragon has been defeated, it's a pyrrhic victory. The dragon, like Grendel before him, is reduced to a little more than a pawn (albeit a frakking great intimidating one) in someone else's grand design. The only real immortality is G-mom herself; she endures, free to seduce again. Beowulf, supposedly the greatest warrior king of all time, is reduced to just another in a line of conquests. Hardly the stuff of legends, huh?
Some of these problems can be whisked away by simply taking the approach that the movie is the "true story," or that it's about the process of hero-making—a case study of the old adage, "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend." There are enough moments in the movie to support that interpretation—as the latter act opens, we see Beowulf watching a performance of his defeat of Grendel. The text, which differs from the action we saw, is taken from the poem (the scene echoes the earlier scene when we hear of Hrothgar's defeat of the dragon). However, that approach is tepidly developed at best, and seems more intended as an out against complaints about the changes to the plot. Following that argument to its logical conclusion becomes an exercise in meta-discourse—one that leaves Wiglaf as the true hero of the film.
That's not to say that the movie isn't enjoyable; it's well-paced and well-directed, the characters are developed just enough for you to care about them, and the fight sequences jack up your adrenaline. It's virtually impossible for any heterosexual male not to envy Beowulf as G-mom makes her sales pitch, and the final fight with the dragon becomes a truly harrowing ordeal as Beowulf realizes what he has to do; you can certainly make the argument that to a degree, Beowulf redeems his earlier weakness. But there's no escaping the fact that his heroic stature is diminished.
OK, now that I've gotten some mileage out of my English degrees, let's move on to the technical aspects. Visually, the movie is magnificent. You can almost feel the rough-hewn stone of Heorot, the torch flames send flickering shadows across those who celebrate within. The same care is taken with the design of everything else in the film. The physical image of Grendel mirrors the wracking pain suggested by Glover's voice. In a nice touch, Grendel speaks in Old English, a Germanic language that bears little resemblance to modern English (oddly, the subtitles don't translate the Old English). As to be expected from a digital source, the video and audio is magnificent. The 5.1 Dolby mix puts you right in the middle of things, and the sound image rotates as the camera swoops and pans. You'll definitely want to crank the sound up when the dragon attacks.
The unrated version runs an extra minute; I'm not entirely sure what the differences are, but my guess is that most of the additions are in the fights with Grendel, when some fighters meet truly horrific ends. In addition, there are probably additional/changed scenes with G-mom that are a bit more revealing.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Setting the thematic issues aside, the plot has a number of rough patches. The two most blatant of these are the death of Hrothgar and the sudden appearance of the dragon horn, signaling the end of Beowulf's deal with G-mom. There's no real explanation for either of them, save than that in each instance, the event is needed to move the plot to the next major section. The horn's emergence is completely arbitrary; G-mom woke up one morning and said, "What to do today? Oh, let's break our agreement with Beowulf!" At best, it presents G-mom as the ultimate puppet master—which further undermines Beowulf's actions. In the poem, a slave who had been beaten and thrown out by his master steals the cup from the dragon's lair in the hopes of regaining his master's favor; the theft pisses off the dragon and the conflagration commences (If that sounds more than a little like Smaug from The Hobbit, it's no coincidence; Tolkien was the first scholar to view Beowulf as literature, rather than as a cultural artifact). A deleted scene shows the slave falling into the cave and swiping the cup; that's a scene that should have been retained.
While I have no problems whatsoever with a nude Angelina Jolie rising from the water like a predatory Venus (a Venus fly trap rather than a Venus on a half-shell)—I particularly like that she literally has six-inch heels—the movie makes it a little too easy for Beowulf to forget that she is, in fact, a monster. We get brief glimpses and reflections as she cares for the mortally-wounded Grendel, but Beowulf only ever sees her as a paragon of pulchritude. Beowulf should have gotten at least a glimpse of her true form so that we can clearly see that he makes his decision out of a desire for fame rather than raw lust.
The extras that are there are good, but it's a rather perfunctory lot. There's no commentary—a track with writers Gaiman and Avery would have been wondrous—and next to no cast interviews outside of Winstone and Glover. The deleted scenes are unfinished, animation-wise; they lack the final rendering for textures and lighting. Commentary on the deleted scenes would have been useful as well.
Zemeckis has crafted a rousing adventure film in Beowulf. While much of the evidence focuses on thematic problems, there's no disputing that Beowulf's confused moral underpinnings prevent the movie from being the epic it wanted to be.
Robert Zemeckis and company are cleared of all charges, though they are advised to consider more carefully the implications of changes made to their source material. And guys, don't save all the extras for the HD DVD edition, OK? After all, you do want people to see them, right?
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