Put this year’s 300 and 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within together and you basically get Beowulf: an uneven animated movie full of dead-eyed, boastful shirtless guys. The comparisons don’t end there either.
Like Zack Snyder’s/Frank Miller’s 300 the story centers around an old civilization obsessed with heroism and glory. The men talk a lot, in really loud voices, about bedding wenches and bearing heirs – despite their longing glances at each other – and they take great, great, great pride in their killing arts. Beowulf (Ray Winstone) kills a lot and he’s not too shy to tell a souped-up story about his past victories. Similar to the cock-worshipping Spartans Beowulf wants his story told through the ages, long after his death in battle. The emphasis on storytelling would’ve been a nice bit of self-reflexivity if Leonidas and his THREE! HUNDRED! SPARTANS!!! DIDN’T ALREADY SAIL THAT BOAT.
And like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (I refer to this because I didn’t see Zemeckis’ previous animated effort – The Polar Express) it’s animated in an uninteresting, dull way (though I think Final Fantasy pulled it off better). Beowulf never leaps past the Uncanny Valley, especially in faraway shots where everyone looks like the video game characters they are. Close-up shots fare slightly better with more realistic detail in the skin, hair and clothing although their eyes are still dull doll’s eyes. This animation just isn’t interesting. It strives for realism but can’t achieve it. So, why?
Based on Ye Olde Englishe Poeme, the story actually sticks quite close to what you may have read in English class – with one major deviation. Just like the poem my sympathies went to Grendel, the monster Beowulf has to kill. Mo-capped by Crispin Glover’s tantrums, he’s unpleasant to look at, so much so it started to affect any enjoyment I may have had. This is an ugly fucking beast. It hurts to look at him. I guess that’s an achievement. It doesn’t help his awful appearance is accompanied by howling shrieks and flashing rave lights. Why filmmakers still insist on bullshit strobe lights … I have no idea. It was an assault on the senses akin to an air raid or an early emergency broadcast. I was annoyed, not scared or excited. But I do look forward to the inevitable GRENDEL RAVES YTMNDs.
After Grendel, the movie lulls itself into a long stretch of talking about things and time passing and general build-up to the final battle against a dragon.
I GUESS I’LL TALK ABOUT PERFORMANCES NOW.
Ray Winstone barks and yells and does an okay job as Beowulf. He strips naked a lot, so that’s something. Anthony Hopkins is weird and goofy as King Hrothgar. He’s also naked. Robin Wright Penn isn’t naked, but she just looks like a sullen action figure. She also sings, though I doubt it’s her voice, and that was actually a nice little interlude.
Crispin Glover annoys and upsets as Grendel. The animators did a good job making him FUCKING AWFUL and Crispin must’ve had a lot of fun miming ripping guys in half but he has dialogue and I wasn’t able to understand any of it. And I saw Gosford Park.
The previews lead to believe Angelina has a huge part but she’s only in two scenes. She’s kinda cool, with that lyrical voice and hot bod, but she’s far more effective offscreen because of her new role. This is treading SPOILER TERRITORY but her role is greatly expanded from the original poem to be more similar to the Echidna of Greek mythology, the mother of all monsters. I liked this added depth to the story even if it was hammered over and over upon my brow by co-writer Roger Avary’s goofy dialogue.
The only actor who stands out from underneath the 3D graphics is Brendan Gleeson as Beowulf’s stalwart sidekick, Wieglaf. He also steals the show in the ending. John Malkovich’s character, Unferth, is the worst offender of the animated lot with an immobile face and eyes that stare forward the entire time. His performance, like everything he’s done the past decade, is so bored and wooden you’d think they rotoscoped the script out of his hands. I thought it was funny.
Writers Avary and Neil Gaiman try to instill a rich text into the proceedings, and it does peek through time to time but it’s hampered by a slow pace and mediocre writing. Hrothgar and, yeah, I guess everyone repeats lines so many times and the dialogue is plain and unmemorable to begin with. I can’t remember many lines except “Ripper, tearer, slasher, etc. I AM BEOWULF!” and a repetition of “SINS OF THE FATHER!!” that brings Avary’s previous muck-up, Silent Hill, to mind. Remember when the little girl screams “SILENT HILL!!! SILENT HILLLL!!” at the beginning? Yeah, it’s like that and just as lame. If one wants to be immature about the whole thing – and why shouldn’t you? – it’s easy to interpret many of the dopey lines as something else. “I have traveled far across the sea to sample his Lordship’s FINE MEAT.” Yum. :3
Instead of an action-packed fun time, Beowulf ended up a chore. It is technically a fine movie with lots of neat camerawork that’s impossible to replicate in live action. There’s also a fuckton of sexual imagery that, uh, rises above the rest of the mundane visuals.
The best part has to be the beginning of the dragon fight when Beowulf stands on his horse and latches onto flying beast. That was pretty awesome. It reminded me of Wander and Agro in the thrilling PS2 game, Shadow of the Colossus. At that point my mind wandered to a greater place … What if Robert Zemeckis made that movie? Beowulf does feels more like a dress rehearsal for a better movie down the pipeline, and it’s obvious Zemeckis feels much more comfortable in the animated world so it should be somewhat interesting to see what he decides to do next.