In Beowulf, Robert Zemeckis’s latest foray into high-tech animation, the title character has fair hair, straight teeth and a tallboy sixer of abs that would make Austin Powers weep. But his performance-captured mojo is cut from the same cloth: “Does my beast slaying make you horny, baby? Randy? Yeah!”
Perhaps as motivation for students to finish that paper on metaphor, rarely in the sexed-up Beowulf is a blade just a blade … like its comically convenient angles when Beowulf is naked or when, at the passionate touch of a nude woman, it collapses in a puddle at his feet. Was Old English for “horndog” hidden in the 1300-year-old, high-school-standard poem of a hero battling creatures?
Beowulf is an improvement over the sterile The Polar Express — Zemeckis’s last film to feature actors’ computer-inputted movements with near-lifelike animation laid over them.
Gone are the dead eyes that made the Polar kids seem like Village of the Damned refugees. However, John Malkovich’s underling Unferth is so inexpressive as to appear blind, the rubbery-human Shrek effect comes into play sometimes, and there’s still work to be done on cleaning these windows into a digital soul.
Other character details — from the whiskers of Beowulf’s metrosexual-trucker beard to the twisted, broken knots on the creature Grendel’s body — and vivid vistas are as sharp as the steel on display. Plus, the film finds better resolution to the same big problem that plagued Polar — taking short source material and expanding it into a long movie.
Zemeckis eventually finds spark in the film behind destiny and consequence as it applies to a man behind a legend. And screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary connect the dots of Beowulf’s in-poem exploits in a way that, without a PG-13 rating to uphold, could’ve matched the lustful-legend fever pitch of John Boorman’s Excalibur.
Instead, Beowulf settles for far too many cheeky sexualized sight gags and puns before staging a compelling, noble and exciting third-act. Too late to really save the movie, it still elevates it above “that thing with that super-hot, totally naked water demon played by a digital Angelina Jolie.”
She’s mother to Grendel, a monster rendered as a walking pile of gnarled gristle the USDA wouldn’t touch with a gallon of disinfectant. Grendel’s tortured wails and flails only could come from Crispin Glover, who, strangely apropos, gets the only scraps of Old-English pronunciation.
Grendel is the violent scourge of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), whose Danes just want to eat, drink and get freaky in 507 A.D. He’ll pray to any god (even the new “Christ Jesus”) to stop Grendel from playing human tenpins with his men. Enter Beowulf (Ray Winstone), a soldier of fortune with a weakness for lusty, busty women who makes good on his pledge to slay the beast.
It’s when mama seeks her revenge that Beowulf turns into a treatise on power and legacy that’s like The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford by way of 300’s action. Heavy is Beowulf’s head once it wears a crown, and the film is smart enough to litter context clues about his curse without being obvious. It’s not immune to Cliffs Notes storytelling, not with problematic moments concerning his fractured romance with Queen Wealtheow (Robin Wright Penn).
Beowulf’s final confrontation is a thrilling aerial dual mixed with classically circuitous storytelling tactics, and Zemeckis’ ambiguous last shot is a piece of bronzed poetry. The shame is in all the time the film spends snickering like a schoolboy behind the phrase “plunging the sword.”