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Beowulf (Director's Cut) (2007)

A movie directed by Robert Zemeckis

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Shrek goes to Geatland

  • Apr 3, 2010
  • by
When I was but a callow freshman my mother, an archetypal Danish monster*, meaning well, made me sign up for a Mediaeval English Literature class. At the time this aggrieved me, but despite myself I enjoyed it immensely, and especially the really old bits - derived from Icelandic and Old High German, prominent among them Snorri Sturluson's sagas in which people ritually burn each other and the anonymous Danish legend Beowulf. It's a great story, even in its original old English (which considerably pre-Chaucer, so tough if you have trouble navigating the vowel shift), and - being the archetypal "confronting the Monster" story - ideal fodder, you would think, for a cinematic treatment.

And in recent times, it has had more than its fair share. Derek Jacobi and Ralph Fiennes have narrated a 30 minute animated version; Gerard Butler and a bunch of Canadians endured gales and abysmal weather in Iceland to make an earnest and frugal but, in truth, not especially imaginative version in 2005. And there's this one.

Well, you certainly couldn't mark this one down for not being imaginative. First the positives: the cast, as announced, is astounding, numbering amongst them Anthony Hopkins (Hrothgar), Ray Winstone (Beowulf), John Malkovich (some other guy) and Angelina Jolie as Grendel's Mother. Yes: you read that right: Brad Pitt's wife (as she then was) plays one of the most famous monsters in the history of literature. Short of a Charlize Theron turn as an Eileen Wurnos type character, that has to be one of the most extraordinary pieces of miscasting since they put Keanu Reeves in Much Ado About Nothing.

Unless, of course, the film-makers have been so imaginative that they've completely re-imagined the part of Grendel's mother. I hope it won't be considered poor sport of me to let on that they have.

And the script is witty and the screenplay and staging - while frequently indulging in 3D effects for the hell of it, as 3D movies tend to do - is impressive. Grendel (junior) is well rendered and achieves surprising empathy for an entirely digital performance. I think he also speaks in Old High German, and is portrayed not as merriment-resenting curmudgeon (as in the original) but as having a very nasty ear infection!

Now the negatives. Beowulf is designed as an onscreen rendering of a graphic novel (in old fashioned lingo, a comic), so do not come to this expecting a faithful or reverent iteration of the film. The plot has been significantly revised, although for the most part thoughtfully and cleverly, albeit conducted at breakneck speed, and with lashings of gore. Then again, it would be difficult to depict as much dismembering the story requires (even in its original state) without a fair bit of splatter.

But the biggest thing to note is that (being produced by the Polar Express team) Beowulf is entirely digital - not just acted in front of blue screens, but fully animated, like Shrek; the actors have been completely re-rendered. In some cases this works well (Hrothgar): I dare say portly cockney geezer Ray Winstone was absolutely chuffed to be presented as a 6 foot 5 inches of rippling Geatish hunk; but the remainder of the characters do have an unfortunate Shrek-ish sort of bearing and their movements aren't especially convincing (particularly the horses, which all look rather stumpy and ponyish). Ultimately I found this immensely distracting to the point where it spoiled what otherwise would have been a tremendous film.

There's a place for the technical wizardry, as Peter Jackson has ably demonstrated; but when it becomes the principal point of the film something is bound to have been lost.

Olly Buxton

*Joking about my mum being a Danish monster. She's a Kiwi, and she's the best.

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More Beowulf reviews
review by . January 11, 2011
The Story of Beowulf Rendered With PULP Re-Envisioning By Robert Zemeckis....
Everyone knows the story of “Beowulf”, most folks have read the epic poem when they were in high school, I have read the story in Bulfinch’s mythology and movies such as “Beowulf and Grendel” have portrayed the poem to a much more accurate degree albeit it was met with mixed reviews. This story (known as “Song of Beowulf” to some) may be the oldest written story in Northern Europe and was a strong part of its oral history. Eventually the story has been passed …
Quick Tip by . February 03, 2010
A flat, shallow piece of filmmaking that relies too heavily on spectacle & not enough on story. A very weak treatment of the epic poem.
review by . November 15, 2008
Hrothgar the King, he built a new hall   For frolicking, drinking and fun   He stocked it with mead, and opened the doors   And soon the par-tay had begun     Grendel the monster awakes from his sleep   Disturbed by the noise from Heorot   He slashes and slays until Hrothgar appears   And challenges him there on the spot     Grendel and Hrothgar, they stand eye to eye   Then Grendel runs …
review by . August 08, 2008
Numerous takes have been done on the Beowulf legend, but this is probably the most expensive one to date, and surely the most ironic one to date, in that it is animated, yet primarily for adults. The twist on the story is new, Beowulf sleeps with Grendel's mother, who in turn bears a dragon as a child. Beowulf then dies while stopping the dragon from destroying his kingdom.     Several things to know before watching this movie. First of, don't let the kids watch it. The amount …
review by . January 13, 2008
posted in Movie Hype
The story of Beowulf is the oldest story of the English language. It's an epic story about a heroic man who seems capable of doing supernatural deeds. When I was a senior in high school I read Beowulf for the first time and loved the story and themes the story was about. I enjoyed reading the story even more years later in college when I had an opportunity to read a few portions in the original Old English. I enjoyed the story just as much a few later when I read Semus Heaney's translation soon …
review by . March 18, 2008
posted in Movie Hype
I am Ripper... Tearer... Slasher... Gouger. I am the Teeth in the Darkness, the Talons in the Night. Mine is Strength... and Lust... and Power! I AM BEOWULF!     Easily the best line from a movie that I can remember and this is one of the many reasons why I gave this film a 5 star rating.    For those who aren't familiar with the notion of Beowulf, let me fill you in and give you the lowdown of where it all came from. Beowulf is an epic poem without an author, …
review by . November 16, 2007
Pros: Amazing FX     Cons: May be to violent for some.     The Bottom Line: A solid film that delivers the goods.     Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie''s plot. The classic Epic poem Beowulf has come to the big screen in a stunning CGI extravaganza under the direction of Director Robert Zemeckis.      For those not familiar with the poem, it is an ancient Danish poem that talks of the heroic …
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Olly Buxton ()
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Spectacular animated action scenes turn the ancient epic poemBeowulfinto a modern fantasy movie, while motion-capture technology transforms plump actor Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast) into a burly Nordic warrior. When a Danish kingdom is threatened by the monster Grendel (voiced and physicalized by Crispin Glover,River's Edge), Beowulf--lured by the promise of heroic glory--comes to rescue them. He succeeds, but falls prey to the seductive power of Grendel's mother, played by Angelina Jolie... and as Jolie's pneumatically animated form rises from an underground lagoon with demon-claw high heels, it becomes clear that we're leaving the original epic far, far behind. Regrettably, the motion-capture process has made only modest improvements sinceThe Polar Express; while the characters' eyes no longer look so flat and zombie-like, their faces remain inexpressive and movements are still wooden. As a result, the most effective sequences feature wildly animated battles and the most vivid character is Grendel, whose grotesqueness ends up making him far more sympathetic than any of the mannequin-like human beings. The meant-to-be-titillating images of a naked Jolie resemble an inflatable doll more than a living, breathing woman (or succubus, as the case may be). But the fights--particularly Grendel's initial assault on the celebration hut--pop with lushly animated gore and violence. Also featuring the CGI-muffled talents of Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs), ...
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Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screen Writer: Roger Avary, Anonymous, Neil Gaiman
DVD Release Date: February 26, 2008
Runtime: 115 minutes
Studio: Paramount Home Entertainment
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