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Customer Review

88 of 106 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Holding Out for a Hero, November 15, 2007
Written around 700 AD and being of unknown authorship, "Beowulf" may be one of the purest fantasies ever told--it was one of the first to tell the story of a warrior who fought demons and a dragon. In the hands of director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, the story transcends what we might have envisioned when reading the epic poem. This latest film adaptation is a triumph of classic storytelling, giving us a both hero to root for and monsters to be afraid of; it's a story told in the language of entertainment, having the power to capture its audience with compelling characters and breathtaking visuals. It's an honest to goodness fable that tells it like it is, completely free of long-winded setups and complicated details.

Relying on the same motion capture technique he utilized in "The Polar Express," Zemeckis has crafted an entirely computer generated film that has an appropriately surreal look. This is especially true of the characters, which exist in a gray area between the realistic and the fantastic; they don't look phony by any means, but they're not completely authentic, either. I suppose part of this can be blamed on the limits of computer technology, which still isn't able to fool an audience despite major advances. The thing is, I don't think the film should have looked too realistic, simply because it's telling an unrealistic story. "Beowulf" is a purely imaginative piece, and as such, the film needed a purely imaginative look. Zemeckis chose to make the entire thing one big special effect--there are no individual effects that enhance live-action scenes.

Taking place in the sixth century, Ray Winstone voices the title character with the perfect mix of pride, arrogance, and youthful impulsiveness. He also gives Beowulf a hard-edged masculinity that's just as expected as it is cliché. Upon hearing that a monster is terrorizing a Danish kingdom, Beowulf and his Geat men come to the rescue. His motives are purely ego driven--he only wants to fight in glorious battle and be remembered for it. Stories of his past battles make this clear because they're all so dramatic, downright boastful. Basically, it's obvious that he's exaggerating practically everything he says to make himself look more like a hero. All arrogance aside, he does believe himself capable of killing the creature that attacked the mead hall of the drunken, disgraced King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and the quiet, suspicious Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn).

This creature is Grendel (Crispin Glover), a character that, like Frankenstein's Monster, is hideous yet pathetic. He's a grotesque sight to behold: he's massive, hunched over, and deformed, bearing little if any resemblance to a human being. His soft, pitiful voice--which speaks in a Scandinavian tongue--is pretty much his only connection to the rest of us. Here's a character that's truly nightmarish in appearance. And when his anger is added to the mix, it gets even worse; he loses control at the sounds of merrymaking, forcing him to retreat from his cave and attack the mead hall. As he breaks through the wooden door, the orange flames in the fire pit become a cold blue that engulf everything surrounding it. Beowulf is able to lure Grendel back by making his men sing, after which the two engage in fierce combat. Because Grendel has no armor or weapons, Beowulf decides to "fight him on equal terms" by stripping completely naked. How this was necessary, I have no idea, but I guess it doesn't really matter.

It's only after the battle is finished that Beowulf learns of Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie), a seductive water demon whose feminine curves are accented by shifting slivers of gold paint. Her hair ends as a living, tentacle-like ponytail, and her feet are naturally high heeled. When Beowulf first meets her, he carries a golden horn given by Hrothgar as a gift; in the presence of Grendel's mother, the horn glows like molten metal, just as the water she emerges from becomes a phosphorescent blue. In this strange yet magically erotic atmosphere, she temps Beowulf with promises of fame and fortune. At what price, no one can say, but considering how fiercely protective she was of her son, I think it's safe to assume that it'll be quite high.

When the film flashes forward by a number of years, signs of Beowulf's age are not the only differences--his views on glory, battle, and fame have changed, forcing him to wonder if his years of arrogance were worth it. At one time, he would scream, "I am Beowulf!" at the drop of a hat, but now, there doesn't seem to be any reason to do that anymore. It doesn't help that he's keeping a big secret, one he's held onto for many years. The arrival of a monstrous fire-breathing dragon brings his past back up to the surface, and he must face it whether or not he's ready to.

But to face his past is to redefine what it means to be a hero. The young Beowulf believed it was all about winning battles, but the older Beowulf begins to feel that there's something more to it, something that doesn't rely on physical brute force and bloodshed. In Zemeckis' film, Beowulf is just like any character on a Hero's Journey: he matures as his quest nears its end. He looks back on what he's been through and is able to draw strength from it. This well-established narrative formula is one of the things that make "Beowulf" an incredibly enjoyable film; it follows the most basic rules of fantasy storytelling, which is both necessary and effective. This movie thoroughly accomplishes what it set out to accomplish--it's an engaging, exciting, and highly artistic vision, made with style and precision. Odin be praised.
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Showing 1-10 of 11 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 18, 2007 10:44:05 AM PST
I'm in! I'm glad to know you give this film full accolades and stars. Your smoothly integrated review is convincing. I can't wait to see it. JP

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 18, 2007 12:12:10 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 18, 2007 12:20:22 PM PST
Yes, this movie is a lot of fun. And it's very well made. You should definitely go see it.

Thanks for your encouraging comment. After seeing the comments left on my review of "Death Sentence," it was a welcome sight.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 24, 2007 8:00:26 PM PST
Philip Lamb says:
Wow, that's pretty severe. So the whole movie is animated? That's both cool and weird...Well, I think I go and see it.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 24, 2007 10:43:59 PM PST
That's right: the ENTIRE film is animated. Zemeckis did the same thing with "The Polar Express."

In reply to an earlier post on May 5, 2009 5:25:55 PM PDT
And that's precisely the problem. What works so wonderfully in The Polar Express is ludicruous (did I spell that right?) in Beowulf. You're right about the monster: it needs to be presented as a pathetic yet dangerous creature, and how can that possibly be achieved by a cartoon? In this context it may not be fair to use that term, but I bet that all the characteristics that you abscribe to the film's "leading players" could have been much better projected by real, live actors. Angelina Jolie does not need a phosphorescent tail to be erotic, for God's sake, and as for Ray Winstone, he can do anything, even as a middle age guy with a double chin, paunchy figure, and no hair. Oh, no: give me the flesh and blood actors any day!

Posted on Sep 19, 2009 8:52:38 PM PDT
J. Reminiec says:
Chris, The Poem Beowulf was written in the year 500...( I should know...I own a copy of it)
I think that the actor who played Hrothgar would havemade a better Beowulf...!!!
the movie is not animated at all
If it was.,It'd be a animated movie & disneyfied! IT WOULD'VE BEEN RATED G!

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 20, 2009 3:22:24 AM PDT
But all the characters are computer generated. If the film isn't animated, then what is it?

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 2, 2009 8:16:53 PM PDT
OldAmazonian says:
Digitally digested and disgorged?

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 2, 2009 8:41:13 PM PDT
Thanks, OldAmazonian, but I think I'll stick with the word "animated."

Posted on May 12, 2010 3:36:49 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 12, 2010 3:38:18 AM PDT
Just watched this the other night for the very first time- I was one of the few who didn't rush to see it on its original theatrical release.

Reading reviews on this site, I think it's instructive that there are almost as many one star reviews as five star ones- usually on this site, 5 star reviews vastly predominate, and even with rather mediocre movies. Movies with a lot of pre-release hype, and a list of well-known actors, generally result in a skewed favorable review total.

Not this one.

I think this version of "Beowulf" shows that most people don't like major Hollywood revisions to plots, especially when attempting to redo a timeless original. I'd say if one was viewing this version without any knowledge of the ancient classic poem, it would be watchable (because of the well-done production values, etc), but even then ultimately unsatisfying to most, because of the all-too-human flaws of Zemeckis' Beowulf. Movies about completely human "heroes" are fine when the hero has flaws, because most mere mortals like something to identify with. But not all: reading several of the lower-rated reviews on this site, it's clear that even a 2010 audience still enjoys a hero without all the failures in character that hold the rest of us down.

For those familiar, indeed well-versed, in the original "Beowulf" poem, I can see why so many find it simply repugnant. This is not the original story, not at all. Hard to understand how a modern day Hollywood director could feel like he HAD to change the story so completely, when the original has been intact for 1400 years. There's a reason why we still enjoy "Beowulf" the ancient poem, and why it is taught in schools across the country. It's "pretty good" as is.
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