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Beowulf   C+

Paramount Pictures / Shangri-La Entertainment

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writers: Neil Gaiman, Roger Avary
Cast: Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Robin Wright Penn, Brendan Gleeson, Crispin Glover, Alison Lohman, Angelina Jolie.

Review by Rob Vaux

Medium or message? Medium or message? Which of Beowulf's disparate halves holds final sway? On the one hand, director Robert Zemeckis has delivered a stirring update of the 1,300-year-old epic poem in a way that actually connects it to contemporary audiences. He fills it with passion and fire and savage energy... with considerable help from co-collaborator Neil Gaiman, whose understanding of mythology's psychological foundations is matched only by his talent for rendering it with exquisite storytelling symmetry.

On the other hand, the motion-capture CGI used to convey their vision still has a ways to go. Not in terms of spectacle -- the visions here are stunning and the IMAX 3-D technology has finally dropped all pretense and shown us Angelina Jolie's breasts. But the plasticine puppetry of the central figures still lacks that essential spark required to bring them to life. The eyes are still doll-like and flat, the facial features still stubbornly refuse to move. How can we feel Ray Winstone's fearsome rage as Beowulf without seeing the curl of his lip? How can we lament Anthony Hopkins' tragic regrets as King Hrothgar without the subtle tremble of his cheeks? And how can Jolie seduce us the way she has so many times before if she can't even cock an eyebrow? Beowulf features fine actors one and all, but they are straitjacketed by the waxen features of the chosen medium: so focused on realism yet still missing the thousand tiny details that can convey a human smile. We have their voices, to be sure, but they themselves remain hidden behind the curtain... and without the connection they bring, Beowulf is just another sound and light show.

Admittedly, it's a pretty cool sound and light show. Gaiman and fellow screenwriter Roger Avary have reforged the basic story into something darker, stronger, and more psychologically complex. While the original tale was simply a time-honored variant of "see monster, kill monster," this version echoes with Shakespearean ambition: delving into the reckless folly of youth, the bitter wisdom of old age, and the cyclical transition of one to the other. Jungian overtones mix with (literally) naked Freud, which provides thematic depth without overwhelming the simple trappings of a grand Viking adventure. It begins when Hrothgar's celebrated mead hall is invaded by the demonic Grendel (voiced by Crispin Glover), who breaks up the party by tearing a number of key revelers in half. Hrothgar promises a great treasure to whoever slays the creature, prompting Beowulf to sail in from overseas (entourage in tow), all ready for a smackdown. Grendel, however, proves to be only the beginning of the problem, for the only thing more terrifying than an unstoppable monster is an unstoppable monster's mother.

The early battles serve more to set the stage than provide any narrative heft of their own. Zemeckis is clearly enamored with the visual potential of this kind of animation: treating us to grand swoops across icy landscapes and fearsome weaves through blood-soaked melees. But so too does the imagery become an end unto itself. Shots are set up solely to exploit the 3-D technology, while the spectacular camerawork often dazzles but rarely illuminates. Zemeckis gilds the story's earthier lilies too. Yes, Beowulf and his crew are wild Danes, full of lust and booze and cheerful whacks to the head with clubs, but Beowulf manages to simultaneously oversell the concept and scuttle away from its direct manifestations. We get double entendres and repeated glances at heaving bosoms (this film is definitely not for the kiddies), but outright nudity is verboten... thus prompting the sort of painfully obvious inserts that turned Eyes Wide Shut into a walking punch line. And while the film works wonders in establishing both the pagan debauchery of the era and the ferocious self-regard of Beowulf as a character, its paradoxical equation of brazen timidity quickly wears out its welcome.

Things pick up midway through, however, as the secrets of Grendel's birth are revealed and the dark legacy he embodies threatens to swallow our hero whole. Gaiman's intuitive grasp of mythic principles plays out in an exquisite arc, lending Zemeckis the drama required to fully engage us and coloring the age-old story with some uniquely modern ironies. Jolie is the fulcrum, starting with the best onscreen entrance of her career and rapidly developing into a mythic femme fatale whose demonic allure makes the perfect challenge to Beowulf's power and ambition. Though departing from the original legend in many key ways, it still feels at home within that ancient framework, and its lessons attain the same resonance that have allowed the story to endure for so long.

Other additions don't work as well, however, particularly an awkward tension involving the rise of Christianity which says little and does less. Similar ideas about the power of storytelling and how much it has in common with flat-out deceit make a noticeable appearance, but never develop beyond that. With the CGI characters so limited in their emotional palates, integrating such ideas into the overall framework becomes nearly impossible... as does connecting us to the human frailties Gaiman and Avary have worked so hard to conjure. Instead, we're left with imagery for imagery's sake -- gorgeous and breathtaking, especially in 3-D, but ultimately just as hollow as Transformers. Like its title character, Beowulf becomes enraptured by the glittering surface when it should be paying attention to the dark rumblings underneath. The strong beating heart of this tale can be seen there -- close enough to touch, but never shattering the chilly exterior of a movie that insists on keeping us at arm's length.

Review published 11.19.2007.

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