“Beowulf” may be the participatory blockbuster of the year, even if that’s not quite what its creators intended. As the film goes in, its value to the audience becomes clear:
“So, like, remember when Beowulf killed those sea monsters? That was cool. And remember when he fights Grendel buck naked, and, like, has to punch his ear but can’t quite get it until the end? That was awesome!”
“Beowulf” is that kind of movie: sequences of noteworthy bombast tainted by a last-minute desire to be poignant.
For those of you who dozed in high school lit, the Old English epic “Bewoulf” has a simple structure told in three stages: Beowulf battles Grendel. Beowulf confronts Grendel’s mother. Beowulf fights a dragon.
They’re all in the movie, but this isn’t really anything like the “Beowulf” you know. Early in the film, in a totally gratuitous flashback sequence, Beowulf gets to boast his past abilities in killing a series of sea monsters. Hmm, don’t remember that. All right, so he kicks Grendel’s ass completely nude after watching his mates get laid to waste. Oh yeah, that’s not how it goes in the poem, either. At least they have the scene from the poem where Beowulf sleeps with Grendel’s sexy mother done right. Wait . a sex scene?
But what “Beowulf” totally lacks in respect and authenticity it completely makes up for in machismo fantasy spectacle. Ironic and self-consciously epic, “Beowulf” is a classical romp in the most contemporary sense possible. And created on the foundation for modern fantasies like “The Lord of the Rings,” the first hour is really great.
Wildly muscular and loud in high-octane computer-animated form, the titular character (voiced by Ray Winstone of “The Departed”) also has plenty more to brag about in this version, courtesy of director Robert Zemeckis (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”). When he first comes onto the screen, he’s presented in the most absurd fashion possible. Camera swooping stably through a harsh storm, Beowulf leads his men forward to Denmark. Strong and assured, he’s a lofty, almost goofily dominate presence. He screams “The sea is my mother!” followed by a haughty laugh. And it’s no small thanks to lead Winstone’s deep, intense voice. Beowulf is one manly dude, and that’s the way he’s supposed to be.
Executed in the expensive, advanced motion-capture computer animation of “The Polar Express,” the film marks another small step in deleting human actors entirely, a process championed by the likes of Cameron and Lucas. But the film doesn’t fancy itself a novelty product – it has emotions to kindle.
Those emotions, out of place and poorly developed, are the film’s largest misstep. The unnecessary shift in tone in the last act, after Beowulf sleeps with Grendel’s mother (played with instant camp by Angelina Jolie) and is suddenly morose and longing to leave his pleasurable life on Earth, leaves cold an audience trained on the rapid-motion bloodlust of the film’s early scenes. If the point of the third act is that pride is a curse, then let’s stay cocky. It’s more fun that way.
Still, taken as comedy or over-the-top action – or even a big “eat me” to classical lit – “Beowulf” is successful entertainment, pure and simple. Brimming with pot shots at Catholicism, masculinity and pride, there may not be much substance here, but there’s a huge mass of hot air to keep the film off the ground.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
At Quality 16 and Showcase