Big, bad ‘Beowulf’
If you get the chance, see “Beowulf” in an IMAX theater with the 3-D glasses on. It’s not that it won’t thrill in plain ol’ 2-D – there’s plenty of high-octane bloodletting to go around – I just suspect that seeing it in 3-D helped bring back the childlike wonder in me. I felt like I had morphed back to elementary school age, back when I was over-psyched to simply watch heroes like Conan slay mighty beasts and earn both the swoons and lamentations of the women – I didn’t really care that the dialog was crap or that Arnold’s acting consisted only of widening and closing his eyes and mouth. “Beowulf” is far from a perfect film, but it remains quite a spectacle nonetheless. Director Robert Zemeckis chose to forego filming actual actors and instead filmed them in motion capture suits and then rendered them in CGI animation. This is how the authoritative but paunchy British actor Ray Winstone morphs into the muscled Beowulf. But most of the actors look more or less like themselves, including heavy hitters like Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Brendan Gleeson and Robin Wright Penn. Angelina Jolie looks like herself only more so, if that were even possible. The CGI actors look so close to real that the flaws sometimes stick out. Occasionally dead eyes, odd poses or Botox-like facial expressions pull you out of the film. But once you get used to it, it’s easy to fall into the world of Norsemen circa A.D. 507, when Christianity was just peeking over the horizon but monsters terrorized the land, in need of heroes to battle them.For those who skipped out on the epic poem “Beowulf” in high school and college, here’s the gist: Hrothgar (Hopkins), king of the Danes, promises half his kingdom to any hero who can rid them of Grendel (Crispin Glover), a hideous scourge of a monster who rips men in half at a thought. Beowulf, a Geatsman from Sweden, arrives with his coterie of mighty Thanes, and they resolve to kill Grendel. Beowulf only fully commits to the battle, though, when the king promises his beautiful wife (Wright Penn) as well. Grendel is a disgusting wonder to look at: All seeping pus and oily scales, Glover brings both violent physicality and an unexpected sympathy to the monster – well, as much sympathy as one can bring to a man-munching beast that looks like a rampaging, desiccated corpse. His battle with a naked Beowulf in the dining hall is thrillingly shot and choreographed, and the palpable danger had me at attention despite the fact that I, like most people, knew the outcome. Beowulf’s struggles don’t end at Grendel, of course, that is where they begin. He must then confront Grendel’s mother. Jolie, despite sporting a semi-ridiculous accent, is tasked with playing an epic siren, a monster worse than her son but irresistible to even the strongest-willed heroes. Emerging naked but for a few well-placed drips of gold from an eerie pool, I think most can agree she was well-cast. “Beowulf” sometimes falls short in the dialog department. Much of the lyricism of the original epic poem is lost, and some of the epic boasting of our heroes gets old. Some lines are campy enough to laugh aloud at (Fair maiden: “I didn’t hear him coming.” Hero: “You won’t hear me coming, either”), but most of the audience didn’t seem to notice. I’m also normally a huge fan of Ray Winstone, but I thought his loutish, cockney accent was a bit much for the role. Someone with a bit more gravity might have been a better choice. “Beowulf” is aided and abetted mightily by the action choreography, which takes more than a few pages from epic video games like “God of War.” But where this is usually a put-down for most movies, it suits “Beowulf,” because the CGI is close enough reality to feel bigger than a video game but far enough to suspend some of our disbelief. Arrows and spears fly at the screen in ridiculous fashion, and Beowulf slides down the bellies of sea beasts, spilling geysers of blood in our general direction. That’s another thing: For a PG-13 movie, “Beowulf” throws more blood, mud and nudity than I’ve seen in ages. It’s a rock-hard PG-13, and I’d be super-stoked if I was 13 and got to see such a welcome wealth of violence and nudity. The monsters also are genuinely scary and not for the weak-hearted or young, so parents take note. Though an important tome and the blueprint for the modern hero epic, “Beowulf” was a fairly one-dimensional slog through Old English language that is as dense as mud. Zemeckis’ “Beowulf” is still a one-dimensional story, but by combining old tales with new tech and putting it in 3-D, “Beowulf” becomes a fun and over-the-top take on the adventure classic that inspired all others.
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