Thursday, October 2, 2008


Any students that believe they can watch the new cartoon movie "Beowulf" (** out of ****) and then fool their English literature professors into believing that they read the 6th century Anglo-Saxon epic poem are in for a rude awakening. Indeed, none of the film or television versions of the Beowulf legend have kept the action of the original old English poem intact. As the first adaptation of the ancient Beowulf yarn, "Grendel Grendel Grendel" (1981) drew its storyline from author John Gardner's 1971 novella "Grendel." Essentially, Gardner depicted the hideous Grendel monster in a sympathetic light. Not only was "Grendel Grendel Grendel" the first attempt at filming Beowulf, but the movie also relied on animation to render its larger-than-life events. In 1998, the BBC and HBO teamed up to televise a second cartoon version appropriately entitled "Beowulf," with the incomparable London stage actor Sir Derek Jacobi serving as narrator. Later, British director Graham Baker helmed the first major attempt to film the vintage Old English poem. Baker cast "Highlander" actor Christopher Lambert as the title character in "Beowulf" (1999), but it departed drastically from the poem, too. Essentially an outlandish science fiction spin on the fable, Baker changed the setting of "Beowulf" from ancient times to the post-apocalyptic future. Meanwhile, Icelandic director Sturla Gunnarsson's tedious "Beowulf & Grendel" (2005) with "300" star Gerard Butler, emerged as the next major television rehash, and Gunnarsson treated the Grendel monster as an outcast human. More recently, The Sci-Fi Channel aired its version of Beowulf back in January of 2007 and called it "Grendel," but it differed in several aspects from the original poem, too. Not surprisingly, "Back to the Future" director Robert Zemeckis' new "Beowulf" takes considerable liberties with the source material. Imagine what the sword & sandal saga "300" would look like if it were done as a cartoon, and you'll know what to expect from "Beowulf." Unfortunately, Zemeckis' use of state-of-the-art, motion capture technology, which converts real-life actors into cartoon figures, is both its chief claim to fame as well as its main liability.

Scribes Roger ("Pulp Fiction") Avary and Neil ("Stardust") Gaiman dispense with the poem's opening lineage passages and launch headlong into the myth. As the story unfolds, King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins of "Fracture") and his Danish subjects are about to christen a massive mead hall—something akin to a private corporate camp house--with women, liquor, and loud music. Amazingly, Hrothgar and company create such uproar that it enrages Grendel, a truly pathetic-looking monster in the snow-swept wilderness not far away from the hall. This murderous fiend storms the mead hall and slaughters warriors left and right. Here, Grendel (Crispin Glover of "Willard") resembles a cross-between of an evil juvenile delinquent straight out of an "Aqua Team Hunger Force" TV episode and a huge emaciated cadaver. Basically, Grendel consists of bone and sinew, but he is merciless when he goes on a rampage.

Naturally, Grendel's bloody massacre horrifies Hrothgar, and the king summons any and all warriors willing to risk their necks, to slay Grendel. A Swedish warrior named Beowulf (paunchy Ray Winstone of "The Departed") and his sword-wielding soldiers arrive after a rigorous voyage. Hrothgar reopens the hall. Beowulf strips nude and sets aside his arsenal of weapons. He plans to kill Grendel with his bare hands. Later that evening after all the revelers have passed out, Grendel surprises them, but the warriors are ready for him. Beowulf rips off Grendel's arm, and the monster vamooses. Not long afterward, Grendel's mother appears and challenges Beowulf. Grendel's mother is not the hag in the poem. Instead, she emerges as a sexy, shape-shifting siren in stiletto heels, played by "Tomb Raider" star Angelina Jolie.

What Avary and Gaiman have scripted is not much more than a standard "Conan" movie, except for the alluring power that Grendel's mother exerts over King Hrothgar and later Beowulf. The two writers have filled in the gaps between the three major set-pieces; (1) Beowulf's battle with Grendel, (2) Beowulf's combat with Grendel's mom, and decades later (3) the fight with a dragon. In doing so, Avary and Gaiman argue that King Hrothgar had a tryst with Grendel's mom and sired their illegitimate offspring.

Altogether, Zemeckis' ambitious but underwhelming "Beowulf" resembles a souped version of an old 1960's Jonny Quest episode, unless you're fortunate enough to catch the 3-D version of this movie in an IMAX Theater. The animated eyes of the characters lack the vivacity of actual humans. Furthermore, their hands are crudely drawn and they look hilarious when they run. Despite the considerable advances made in photo-realistic, motion capture technology, "Beowulf" forfeits the subtly nuanced acting skills of thespians like Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Crispin Glover, Robin Wright Penn, and Brendan Gleeson. Meanwhile, everything non-human looks terrific. All works of literature and film are linked by universality. "Beowulf" constitutes the 6th century equivalent of a 21st century home invasion. Sadly, the hilarious looking Grendel villain and the less-than spectacular animation of the principal actors defeats "Beowulf."

No comments: