Beowulf (Paramount/Warner Bros., PG-13)

film_beowulf_sm.jpgCuriously, this adaptation is more of a cinematic gimmick than an actual film, animated with the motion-capture technique Zemeckis used in The Polar Express and presented in 3D.







It was bound to happen that Hollywood would one day give its take on the eighth-century epic poem, Beowulf. It wouldn’t be the first, though. Within the past ten years, there have been at least two other adaptations of varying qualities. One was a lousy sci-fi update with Christopher Lambert; the other, entitled Beowulf & Grendel, a Canadian/British/Icelandic co-production starring Gerard Butler (300), Sarah Polley, Stellan Skarsgård, and Tony Curran. Here, it’s Hollywood’s turn, with director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, the Back to the Future trilogy) in the director’s chair. Curiously, this adaptation is more of a cinematic gimmick than an actual film, animated with the motion-capture technique Zemeckis used in The Polar Express and presented in 3D. It sort of raises the question as to why, of all films, Beowulf, a high school reading staple that’s begrudged students for years, would deserve such a treatment. I can’t answer that, so instead I can only attest to the fact that Zemeckis’ version is probably a lot more entertaining that it should have been.

I can barely recall my freshman year introduction to Beowulf, often considered the only remaining and thus greatest of Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry, so any questions to the authenticity and faithfulness of this production should be directed elsewhere. The film begins in a Danish village (where the inhabitants speak English, of course; this is a Hollywood film) that’s being terrorized by the monstrous Grendel (a barely recognizable Crispin Glover). In comes the famous Beowulf (The Departed‘s Ray Winstone in face, some chiseled model in body) with his men to aid the drunken king (Anthony Hopkins) in ridding the cursed demon from his torment. In its glorious, but perhaps not-glorious-enough, 3D, a naked Beowulf battles Grendel in a scene that’s much less Eastern Promises than it is Austin Powers, leading Beowulf to the real threat of Grendel’s mother (Angelina Jolie). What follows is Beowulf’s ascent to kingship some years later with the secret of Grendel’s mother looming above his false splendor.

As a film, Beowulf is smarter than its distant cousin 300, likely due to the difference in source material. It sometimes recalls, regrettably, some of the worst aspects of 300, though with no fault to the director, as Beowulf began production long before 300 ever saw the light of day. There’s the occasional slow-mo combat and squirmingly bad dialogue (Winstone’s testosterone-laden delivery of "I am Beowulf" will undoubtedly bring back bad memories of Gerard Butler kicking Persians into a hole).

What Beowulf also shares with 300 is the bizarre, third-grade-boy homoeroticism that runs throughout the film. At nearly any opportunity, Zemeckis strips Beowulf of his clothes, whether lounging about the castle nude or trying to woo the dashing queen (Robin Wright Penn) with his washboard abs. I have to give some credit to Wright Penn for supplying the film with its seediest double entendre ("Men have come from great distances to feast on the king’s meat") without a wink. Once you get into Beowulf’s awkward homoerotic rhythm, try not to be surprised when a dragon nearly drops king Beowulf ass-first onto the top of a flagpole.

The 3D gimmick of Beowulf actually ends up paying off, as it was filmed with the intention of a glasses- or goggle-wearing audience. Other attempts at this, from Superman Returns to Harry Potter, haven’t worked nearly as well. You get to a point of allowing the unnecessary to transpire for purely the sake of the visuals and experience, scenes that would have been useless in a 2D film. The 3D element, however, doesn’t save the film from some of its lousy casting. As the most fascinating character in the whole spectacle, Jolie, golden and nude with a tail for hair and built-in high-heels, plays Grendel’s mother similarly to how she portrayed Alexander the Great’s mother, fully equipped with that dreadful almost-Russian accent she seems to think is seductive. Alison Lohman (Where the Truth Lies) is arguably more convincing as Beowulf’s young mistress but terribly dull at the same time, and for those John Malkovich detractors (of whom I am the reigning king), rest assured that he’s hardly the distraction he might have been.

As a film, Beowulf entertains about as much as you hoped it would, no more and no less. And yet, it’s reluctance to go further than you expect makes it about as memorable an experience as I imagine it was seeing Jaws 3D. | Joe Bowman

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