Film review by: Witney Seibold


            Robert Zemeckis’ new cartoon film “Beowulf,” with its loud speechifying, campy monster sex, naked grudge matches and penis jokes, plays almost like a satire of the top-heavy sword-and-sandal films of old (and which seem to be making a comeback with this year’s “300”). But the dreary tone, somber acting, and use of cutting-edge animation (including a few selected cities with 3-D productions) belie any humor.  So the entire affair, while initially prompting snickers (and a few people, myself especially, were snickering at my screening), eventually bogs itself down into a dull thudding spectacle film that any American teenager has already seen at least fifty times in their lives.

            The story is familiar to you already, even if you haven’t picked up a copy of Seamus Heany’s new translation of the Old English epic: King Hrothgar of Denmark (Anthony Hopkins) has just built a new mead hall. The Danes drink mead in the mead hall. Lotsa mead. They talk about mead a lot. Queen Wealthow (Robin Wright-Penn) gives mead to Hrothgar in his special dragon-shaped mead-horn. Mead. A lot of mead. In fact, they toss about their “mead” the same way the strippers tossed around “brown rice and vegetables” in “Showgirls.” Screenwriters Roger Avery and Neil Gaiman seem to have learned one thing about medieval Danes – that they drank mead – and bothered to learn little else about their culture or lifestyles.


            Anyway, the Danes drink their mead so loudly, it rouses the rancor of local monster Grendel (Crispin Glover), looking like a fishman recovering from multiple burn injuries, who bounds out of the nearby mountains and trashes the mead hall, killing many. Who will ever save them?


            Enter fratboy blowhard Beowulf (Ray Winstone from “Sexy Beast”). Beowulf is the leader of The Geats, a tribe of hard-fightin’, hard-fartin’, wads of manliness who pull out human hearts with their bare hands and crush them and ask questions later. “I have come to kill your monster!” Beowulf shouts. Only one person is skeptical, the king’s aide Unferth (John Malkovich) is skeptical, but he’s an Early Christian, and the film seems to take a dim view of Christianity (“We have a world of whining martyrs and not men”), despite its constant religious vows to The Gods.


            There is a nude fight between Beowulf and Grendel (enter genital-obscuring swords and candlesticks), and Beowulf kills Grendel. Hrothgar, though, seems to know there is one more monster remaining, and sends Beowulf to slay Grendel’s mother.


            Here’s where the film begins to depart from the original poem. Grendel’s mother is not a slug-like hag, but a lissome babe with no clothes, high-heeled feet, and high firm breasts with just enough nipple-obscuring goldleaf to warrant an inexplicable PG-13 rating. She’s played by Angelina Jolie. She gives Beowulf’s sword a handjob. It’s all kind of disgusting. Will Beowulf slay her, or will he be seduced by her sexy evilness? And what would be the consequences of each? Needless to say, there’s still about 40 minutes of film following the sword handjob, Alison Lohman makes an appearance, and there’s an exciting fight with a huge fire-breathing dragon.


Huh. Boobies.


            Everything is over-the-top in “Beowulf” from the animation to the acting, but not really in a fun way. The film was made with a style of animation which was once called rotoscoping, but is now called motion-capture, where live-action actors are suited with computer-scannable thingies, and their movements are used as guides for their animated counterparts. In addition, the animated characters look exactly like the actors playing them; we hear Anthony Hopkins’ voice, but we also see an eerie likeness of his face. Their arms and bodies occasionally seem to have very real movement, but looking at their faces, they look about as expressive as the Johnny Depp animatronic statue on Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland.


            What’s the point of having animation so real-life accurate? Why not just, oh, film the actors? Or, if you’re going to animate, why not design the characters to look more like characters and less like people? The only reason I can think of is to talk about it. It’s like having a watch that remotely resets itself back to a universal clock tuned into the movement of the planets, making it accurate down to the nanosecond. There’s no reason having a watch that accurate other than to tell other you have it a watch that accurate. There’s no reason to animate a film so realistically other than to fill up a disc on the video release about how you animated it so realistically.

             But the creepy animation wouldn’t be an issue if the film were witty. It’s not. It’s just thudding and bloated like any dull summer blockbuster. The 3-D is neat, but doesn’t enhance much. The screenplay is largely to blame. Author Neil Gaiman has been growing in popularity for the last few years thanks to his moody brand of pop fantasy, and some of it can be bracing and creative. Sadly, his approach to a lot of his work entails throwing what bits of Shakespeare, mythology, fairy tale, and Wicca he knows into a blender and pouring out a mixture of confused razzmatazz which seems to have forgotten its origins. At least that’s the case with “Beowulf,” a project with a lot of potential, but no fun.

Published in: on November 26, 2007 at 11:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

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