Monday, November 26, 2007

Movie Review: Beowulf

I have never read “Beowulf” before in my life. It was neither required reading during secondary school nor was it required in any of my classes during college. So fortunately (or unfortunately depending on how you see it), I do not know much of the old English epic poem. What little I did know was that it was about a hero how fought and defeated a monster called “Grendel” in a Norse mead hall. I knew that much from watching an old Star Trek: Voyager episode where the holographic doctor got stuck in the ship’s holodeck while it was running a “Beowulf” scenario. I never really knew that there was more than that part to the poem until I watched the recently released reinterpretation of the poem in a full length animated feature medium.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis who earlier pioneered the same animation technique used here in “The Polar Express”, “Beowulf” tells the story of the titular character’s exploits starting with his arrival to the lands ruled by the elderly King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and his queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn). The King’s land has been beset by a horrible monster, Grendel (Crispin Glover), who had slaughtered his people as they were reveling in his newly built mead hall. Beowulf (Ray Winstone) and his crew of Geatsman arrived on scene vowing to rid the king of his monster which he eventually did in a great battle.

Grendel’s death in the hands of Beowulf did not sit well with his mother who immediately set out to revenge her son’s death. She massacred all of Beowulf’s companion save for Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson) who was sent to prepare their ship for their departure home. Beowulf was again dispatched to deal with the murderous monster in her lair only to find that it had taken the seductive form of a naked woman (Angelina Jolie) who tempted Beowulf with power and glory for exchange for him give her a replacement for her dead son and leave her to live in her lair.

Beowulf returned to the king with proof of Grendel’s death and not of the mother although he told everyone that the deed was done. Knowing what Beowulf had done, King Hrothgar proclaimed the returned hero the new king and promptly threw himself off the tower to leave him to rule his lands. The story fast forwards several decades where the older King Beowulf had to again face a monster menacing his lands but this time in the form of a giant fire breathing dragon. Unlike his battle with Grendel, the fight this time around was more personal to the king as his past sin had finally come to haunt him and all his deeds finally becomes undone.

From what I was able to read of the movie, several changes were made by fantasy novelist Neil Gaiman and co-scribe Roger Avary who wrote the screenplay to the film in order to create a cohesive connection between the different events detailed in the original material. Having not read the original poem, I could only guess what was added or taken out from the storyline but what was left was good enough to propel the movie forward. Beowulf’s character development from a boastful warrior to wizen kind was explained adequately through out the film. The story itself flowed smoothly throughout the movie although some of the quieter moment of the film as a bit of a chore to go through. I found myself almost nodding off while waiting for the next action sequence to start since nothing really substantial was provided to hold my attention.

“Beowulf” was a visual treat to watch with it’s many depictions of the open expanse of the snow covered landscape, blue flame strobe like effect during the Grendel’s fight scenes and the golden shimmering waters of the monster’s lair. All of these set pieces were meticulously rendered in wonderful detail which could better enjoyed when watching the IMAX 3D version of the film which I’m not sure will be shown in Malaysia. Nevertheless, the 2D version that I saw was still quite impressive to watch. Less impressive was the character rendering which although was quite advanced compared to the earlier attempt with the same technique in “The Polar Express”, still had a plastic mannequins quality to the real life actor reproductions. The technology has still a ways to go if it would be used to replace live action actors in a film production as it has not solved the problem of how to make the live actor representation look less creepy.

Voice acting from the stellar cast on “Beowulf” was particularly memorable for me as I tried not to be too distracted by the character representations. Ray Winstone’s voice gave Beowulf the commanding heft that the character required although the frequent pronouncement of “I am Beowulf” left me with flashback to a more superior Gerald Butler in “300”. John Malkovich as Beowulf’s jealous court rival, Unferth, was particularly enjoyable to listen to as he delivered his lines with such mastery of the character. The other actors also left their memorable marks in terms of voice acting which helped to make their on screen characters easier to relate to in an emotional sense even when visually they lack the emotional link.

The two main action sequence in the movie was also choreographed wonderfully to sustain audience attention. The fight scene between Grendel and Beowulf would be remembered for the hideously grotesque depiction of Grendel in his most murderous as well as the cutesy strategic blocking of Beowulf’s privates during the acrobatic battle given that he was stark naked when fighting the monster. Given that we see much more when Grendel’s mother appears on screen, the earlier cover up attempts seems to be a bit on the childish side. Thankfully, we also have an even more exciting climatic battle scene between Beowulf and the dragon. Visually rich, the aerial dogfight left me quite exhilarated by it and made for a really memorable way to end the movie. Special mention should also be made for the sea monster battle montage that came before the Grendel battle for being somewhat appropriately gory for a hero to boast of his success.

While it may not win any fans from those who might prefer the original material, “Beowulf” has some moments of brilliance to get people to come and watch it. Some may even try to guess if it would have made for a better movie had it was acted with live actors instead of representation of them generate with the performance capturing technique. It would definitely lost some of it’s visual richness had it been produced as a live action movie as the cost of having the same level of detail might be a bit too cost prohibitive. One could also wonder if it would not have been better to have the emotional gravitas that only live actors might provide instead of pale reproduction in digital animated form. Regardless of where one stand on the issue, “Beowulf” was still a visual treat to experience.

Just try not to fall asleep during the quieter moments.

1 comment:

patrick said...

Beowulf's animation was all around impressive, though the characters' movement reminded me a lot of Shrek. I appreciate the fact that this movie gives a pseudo-education in ancient literature (never had to read the book as a child)