MovieMantz Review: ‘Beowulf’

The First Action Hero

by Scott Mantz

Starring: Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

“Just don’t take any course where they make you read Beowulf!” — Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), “Annie Hall” (1977)

The above quote may be more well-known than the literary classic it’s making fun of, but what do you expect? “Beowulf” is the oldest tale in the English language, but it’s also one of the most tedious, which is why a lot of people tend to shrug it off after having it shoved down their throats back in high school.

But leave it to Robert Zemeckis to turn the 8th Century fable into a commercially accessible 21st Century blockbuster. By utilizing the innovative motion-capture technology that he pioneered with 2004’s “The Polar Express,” Zemeckis has re-imagined “Beowulf” as an action fantasy for the Xbox generation.

The problem is, it pales in comparison to “300,” the super-stylish medieval hit that grossed a surprising $439 million worldwide last spring. Where that film (which cost $65 million) used real actors for the speaking parts and special effects for just about everything else, “Beowulf” (which cost $150 million) goes one step further by covering its actors with digital interpretations of themselves.

And that begs the question, why bother? Why cover an actor like Anthony Hopkins with a computer-generated character that looks like…Anthony Hopkins? At least Angelina Jolie looks stunning (how could she not?), and Ray Winstone looks completely different as the muscular title character – but since he looks so much like actor Sean Bean, why not just use…Sean Bean?

The good news is that the motion-capture process used here represents a significant improvement over “The Polar Express,” which featured characters that looked a bit too dead-eyed to be engaging. But it’s still not quite there yet, since real actors would have made the film more emotionally accessible. Having said that, “Beowulf” still has some great action scenes, which are a marvel to behold in formats like Dolby Digital 3D and IMAX 3D.

In the classic story, the mighty Beowulf (Ray Winstone) must fight to destroy the evil Grendel (Crispin Glover), the overpowering demon who terrorizes the kingdom ruled by King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins). But when Beowulf falls under the spell of the beast’s seductive mother (Angelina Jolie), he must break the curse by fighting an epic battle that will resonate throughout the ages.

There’s no doubt that “Beowulf” is going after the “300” crowd, since it’s extremely violent and filled with testosterone-fueled excitement. But Zemeckis and screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery also incorporate various elements of heroism from classics like “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars,” which themselves were clearly influenced by themes from the mythical story.

With a list of credits that include hits like “Back to the Future,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Forrest Gump,” it’s hard to imagine a filmmaker better-suited to bring “Beowulf” to the big screen than Robert Zemeckis. If he can’t make the classic story appeal to the masses, then no one can. But if that doesn’t work, you can always take that course where they make you read the book.


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