People have raved on about the quality of the CGI effects in which the animated characters, based on the real life actors, look almost real. For me, it was a little disconcerting, and more like watching Sims or a video game than a movie. While I’ve often been wowed by the quality of the graphics and animation in modern video games, in this movie I found them a poor substitute for real actors. I would have preferred to see real actors with the CGI blended in, as in LOTR. But I guess that would have required Ray Winston, who played Beowulf, to actually work out to develop that six-pack. LOL. And the 3D effects were fun, you know, the spears and arrows and such coming right at you.
Of course you all know that the original Beowulf is an epic poem in Old English composed sometime between the middle of the 7th and end of the 10th century. Although the poem was written in England, it talks about events in Scandinavia that may partly be historical (minus the monsters) and date to around 500 A.D. The use of language in the original, even in translation, is stunning. What I didn’t know until I looked it up is that the only known copy of the poem was nearly consumed in a fire in 1731 which singed its pages. About twenty years after that near disaster, the ms found a home in the British Museum. Makes one think about all the other unknown literary treasures that have been lost to us over the years. But I digress.
The hero of the poem, Beowulf, is a Geat from an area in southern Sweden. Upon hearing of a great reward offered by King Hrothgar to anyone who can rid him of a monster named Grendel who comes to his hall at night and slaughters his men, Beowulf travels to the land of the Danes to do battle with the monster.
In the original story, Beowulf kills Grendel and then when the hall is again attacked by Grendel’s enraged mother, Beowulf follows her to her watery underground home (welcome to my Underground Lair), and kills her. Triumphantly, he returns to his own country. The last part of the poem takes up many years later when a dragon plagues the land and an aging Beowulf once again must prove himself a hero, which he does, although he dies in the process.
The poem has a strong old Testament Christian overlay onto what were undoubtedly older pagan stories. The demon Grendel is said to be a descendant of Cain. Beowulf is depicted as a true hero who over the course of the story matures from a young man who sets out to do heroic deeds for glory, and later, as an old man, to preserve his people. “That was a good king,” the poem says several times.
The movie ties all three of the monster-killing episodes together (I won’t spoil it and say how) in a way that I think makes good sense in terms of making a coherent narrative, but as a result the message of the story is considerably altered. In this movie Beowulf is a blustering braggart who is then conquered by Grendel’s mother, a seductive demoness played oh-so-deliciously by Angelina Jolie. Somewhat chastened by his failure, which he never admits and in fact lies about, Beowulf attempts to atone for his sins by slaying the dragon. (Lots of Oedipal stuff in here.)
The movie also departs from the Christian messages of the original. At one point one of the characters asks if they should pray to the new god, Jesus Christ, in addition to the old ones and someone, I forget who, I think King Hrothgar, says, “we don’t need gods, we need a hero.” In addition, the dragon burns up the Christian church. So much for that new-fangled religion.
The calibre of the actors does a lot to help the movie. It’s hard to go wrong with Anthony Hopkins (King Hrothgar), Angelina Jolie (although I could do without her Dracula accent, the same one she used as Olympia, Alexander’s mom), and John Malkovich (Unferth). Another aside, Crispin Glover played Grendel’s voice, there isn’t much left of his face in the character. Anyone know what else he’s been in? He played the crazy assassin with a thing for hair in the movie Charlie’s Angels and also George McFly, Marty’s nerdy father in Back to the Future.
For reasons that don’t make much sense, the movie Beowulf chooses to fight the monster in the
nude. In the original, Beowulf fights Grendel with his bare hands but not bare-assed. I must say this heightens one’s interest in the proceedings and increases the cringeworthy aspect. I certainly wouldn’t want to be leaping on a monster’s back and landing that hard on all my dangly bits. Ouch!! Then all those objects, spears and helmets and such, that appear just in time to strategically obscure certain body parts a la Austin Powers actually make the scene funny. I wonder if it was intentional.
Other nods to the original included people singing heroic lays in both modern English and in old English. Grendel speaks in Old English, which is why you can’t understand what he says and here I just thought he was mumbling.
Interesting too that the stories people tell in this anti-heroic tale are untrustworthy. When one of Hrothgar’s men, Unferth, challenges the boastful Beowulf’s ability saying that he was beaten in a swimming race by a better man, Beowulf explains that the reason is that he was beset by sea serpents. When Unferth says sarcastically, I suppose you were attacked by 20 serpents, Beowulf says no, it was only nine. That makes the story seem true until Beowulf's man Wiglaf says in an aside, “last time it was three.” Our boastful hero does learn humility and redeems himself in the end with valorous deeds. But we are left with a chilling vision of our heroes' inability to resist temptation.
All in all, I thought it was entertaining and worth seeing. And by all means see the 3D version with the silly glasses.
Grendel's mom rising from the mere. Swamp witches never looked so good.
Yeah, Beowulf had a hard time resisting this one. I love the Alien-like tail.
CGI version of Ray Winston as Beowulf
Best pic I could find of the way cool dragon