(2007) Animated Feature (Paramount) Starring the voices of Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Robin Wright Penn, Brendan Gleeson, Dominic Keating, Alison Lohman, Crispin Glover, Costas Mandylor, Chris Coppola, Charlotte Salt, Julene Renee, Sebastian Roche, Chris Coppola, Sonja Fortag, Jacquie Barnbrook. Directed by Robert Zemeckis
We are in the midst of a cinematic superhero golden age. However, even before comic books there were heroes. Gilgamesh, Hercules, Theseus – all names that were spoken of with honor in ancient days. The legend of Beowulf is one of the oldest examples of heroic literature but today, few know his story – and it is a mighty one.
King Hrothgar (Hopkins) of Denmark and his much younger queen Wealthow (Penn) are celebrating their grand new meadhall in fine drunken fashion. The aging king may lament the lack of a son and heir but he has a full life of heroic deeds to sing of. He is drunk to the disgust of his queen, but to the praise of his warriors. The noise reaches the ears of the monster Grendel (Glover). Being a monster, he reacts predictably. None of the drunken Danes can stand up to the misshapen creature, as the smarmy adviser Unferth (Malkovich) cowers in a cistern. The carnage is considerable.
Fully aware that none of his people have the strength or courage to defeat the monster, Hrothgar sends word to all the nations of the earth that a hero is required. His desperate cry is answered by Beowulf (Winstone) of the Geats, a vain swaggering man who can thankfully back up his boasts. Although his trusted right hand man Wiglaf (Gleason) has reservations about the whole situation, he has his friend’s back.
Beowulf is greeted less than enthusiastically by the suspicious Danes, who find his stories a tad tall. Wealthow, for her part, finds the studly Geat intriguing, while Beowulf does the same. Hrothgar, who was friends with Beowulf’s father, is grateful to have him there to rid him of his curse. He orders a great celebration in the Meadhall, which is sure to attract Grendel’s notice.
True to form, Grendel arrives and again wreaks great havoc. The cocky Beowulf, who is fully naked since Grendel wears no armor nor carries any sword, watches his men get bounced around the room like ping pong balls, but soon sees Grendel’s weakness and exploits it. At length, he manages to chain the creature up so that it is half in, half out of the doorway and uses the chain to rip the arm off of the beast, which limps home to mama (Jolie). His killer’s name is the last word on his lips.
The grieving and furious mom (she has no name either in the movie nor the story it is based on) takes out her fury on Beowulf’s men. Only Wiglaf escapes the slaughter being down by the boat preparing it for the trip home. Beowulf is also spared by the demon, but only because she has plans for him. Beowulf has been given a beautiful dragon horn as a gift by Hrothgar, who has also promised Beowulf the throne of Denmark when Hrothgar dies, but with the demon still loose in the land, Beowulf knows he must kill the mother of the monster before he can truly call himself a hero, but he will face his greatest challenge; his own vanity and pride. Will he be hero enough to overcome them?
Yes, this is the same motion capture animation Zemeckis utilized in The Polar Express, but this is far more than the one-man show that movie was. Zemeckis hired a very impressive group of actors, led by Winstone – one of the finest character actors of his generation – and Hopkins, one of the finest actors period. They roar with the best of them here. Although you get a sense of the faces of the actors, they are altered enough so that they don’t quite look the same. Still, how can you go wrong with a cast that includes Gleason, Penn, Malkovich, Jolie and Lohman?
The animation here was stunning in its day – seven years ago While they are going for an almost photo-realistic style, it is still obviously animation and the characters have that lifeless expression that came with 3D photorealism in its earliest stages. Still, there are times when you forget that it isn’t live action, and that’s saying something. I saw this in a 2-D version which spared me the headaches of 3-D animation, but judging from what I saw, the 3-D version would probably be terrifying. The music is suitably heroic and martial. Not many are familiar with Beowulf’s story, one of the oldest heroic epics we are aware of.
As I said earlier, the cast is first-rate. There is quite a bit of entertainment to be had here. Winstone’s take on Beowulf makes him a big-time blowhard, but noble nonetheless – a tough trick to pull off.
There’s quite a bit of shouting and chest-beating here. The testosterone levels are abundant to say the least, even among the women in the cast. However, Neil Gaiman wrote the script which should tell you all you need to know about the quality of the writing.
Da Queen was not interested at all in catching this, so I didn’t see it until it hit On Demand. I would have liked to see this on a big screen – the visuals are worth it. Even on a small screen, it’s impressive. I wouldn’t say it’s up with Polar Express or the Back to the Future series in Zemeckis’ resume, but this is solid nonetheless.
WHY RENT THIS: Impressive visuals. Even in motion capture Winstone, Gleeson and Hopkins are terrific actors.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Curiously lifeless. An over-abundance of testosterone.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is some animated nudity and quite a bit of carnage. The monsters can be awfully frightening, This PG-13 could easily have wound up being R-rated without too much of a stretch.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Glover previously worked with Zemeckis on Back to the Future.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are featurettes on the history of the story of Beowulf, and how it made it from story to screen. The making-of featurettes are also unusually interesting given the demands of motion capture and the larger-than-life nature of the actors involved.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $196.4M on a $150M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Arthur
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Wish I Was Here