Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Starring Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn, Brendan Gleeson, Crispin Glover, Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich. (2007, PG-13, 115 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 16, 2007
The irony inherent in using 21st century motion-control technology to tell a tale approximately 1,400 years old is just one of many bizarrely entertaining aspects of Beowulf. However, I'd go so far as to wager my left arm that the pinnacle of weirdness in Zemeckis' ecstatically bombastic 3-D film adaptation of the first known Anglo-Saxon prose poem is watching Glover, as the monster Grendel, drool ropy strings of saliva on a justly chastened Penn (as Queen Wealthow) while muttering in actual, if incomprehensible, Olde English. Forget Zemeckis – this is sublimely surreal David Lynch terrortory if ever I've seen it, wild at heart and very fucking weird all over. High school English teachers, although likely not Zemeckis' target audience, may breathe a collective sigh of relief: Although this version of Beowulf (the script, ricocheting between thrilling, heroic, and hilarious, is by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary) does take some liberties with certain heretofore undreamed of aspects of parentage, it's as faithful to the extant version as it needs to be. This isn't John Gardner's Grendel, either, but since most of us were doodling in our spiral-bound notepads when we should have been paying attention in English class, the story tells of the titular hero (Winstone) and his band of merry Norsemen (including Gleeson's well-played Wiglaf) who arrive in King Hrothgar's (Hopkins) troubled Danish kingdom to slay the monster Grendel. Looking something like Robert De Niro's patchwork Frankenstein monster with leprosy, Grendel has of late taken to turning up every time the randy, rowdy Danes throw a party. (He's either the ultimate uninvited house guest or the world's most ’roid-addled beat cop.) Either way, it falls to Beowulf to slay the monster, which he does, in the nude, with his fleshy battle staff concealed – à la Austin Powers – by various foregrounded objects. And then, as so often happens in films featuring naked, animated British actors, things get really freaky. There's no doubt Beowulf is crackerjack popcorn entertainment. The 3-D effects, developed by James Cameron's Lightstorm Productions for that director's own Aliens of the Deep, are jaw-droppingly immersive and realistic, but thanks to the witty, zippy script, they never detract from the story, which ends up becoming something of a semiprecursor to John Boorman's Excalibur (another English lit adaptation with Hollywood appendages). The sticking point, for many people, will be Zemeckis' reliance on the imperfect technique of motion-control animation, which, while superior to the dead-eyed Village of the Damned creepout that was The Polar Express, still exhibits a certain Shrekiness when it comes to such complex, expressive textures as the human face. Then again, the technique allows one hell of a kickass (sorry, but there's just no other word for it) dragon. Also, Malkovich – as kingly adviser Unferth – radiates far less of his trademark "ick factor" in 3-D than he does in whatever dimension it is that he usually inhabits. Seriously though, how often does a film writer get the chance to say, "Crispin Hellion Glover is Grendel!" and honestly mean it? I mean, c'mon. That's just cool.