Sunday, December 2, 2007

Beowulf

Beowulf is based on a classic epic poem: the hero, Beowulf (Ray Winstone), travels to a distant kingdom in order to defeat Grendel, the ancient demon who tirelessly plagues King Hrothgar’s (Anthony Hopkins) domain. Here is one of the Western World’s oldest fantasies, a classic tale of larger-than-life heroes - a story that has survived the centuries. Why, then, would filmmakers feel the need to alter it? The biggest mistake of this movie is not that it deviates from the original story, but rather that it tries to keep one foot in the original and the other foot out. The literary character of Beowulf stands tall as the ideal 6th century man, but this film suffers from a modern man’s problem: it’s afraid of commitment.

In 2004, Troy made similar mistakes. A superb cast, enormous budget, and classic story came together and flopped because the filmmakers tried to modernize The Iliad by removing the gods and adding clich├ęd dialogue, presenting an epic, yet watered-down mish-mash of a movie. This time, Beowulf presents its title character as part legendary hero and part modern man who struggles with his ego. If only the film could have let go and trusted the original source material; Beowulf isn’t dishonorable, and he certainly never fuels his own ego. The literary character of Beowulf is a model of honor and virtue, and he earns his reputation solely through deeds. He isn’t a realistic character, but this story rarely calls for realism. He’s a superhero.

This movie gets most things right in its first half. Beowulf rides in like the manly-man he is, promising to vanquish the evil monster. When told that many warriors have died trying to claim the reward of gold, he says, “If we die, it will be for glory - not gold.” Because Grendel uses neither weapons nor armor, Beowulf strips completely naked and fights Grendel with his bare hands. Now THAT’S how this entire movie should have been: epic, over the top, and good ol’ goofy fun. Unfortunately, the violence is more disturbing than fun, and once Beowulf visits Grendel’s mother (Angelina Jolie), the plot takes a wrong turn and never recovers.

Beowulf marks director Robert Zemeckis’ second venture into the world of motion-capture animation, a style that uses computers and special cameras to make the animation look as realistic as possible. Real actors give actual performances, but what you see on-screen are computer-animated versions of those performances. This was done with enormous grace and mystery in The Polar Express (2004), but the world of Beowulf is far darker, more sinister, and ultimately less interesting. Facial expressions are more realistic, but the grim environments failed to capture my imagination and draw me in. Characters and settings in The Polar Express don’t exactly look real, but they aren’t false either. Magical uncertainty lurks around every corner of that train. Like The Polar Express, Beowulf debuted in multiple formats, the best of which is IMAX 3D. The 3D achievement here is unbelievably impressive; 3D cinema used to be a gimmick, composed of multiple 2D layers (one flat thing looked closer than another flat thing), but not anymore. However, 3D realism makes the film’s violence all the more intense; limbs aren’t just thrown, they’re thrown at your face.

One of my biggest criticisms isn’t of the film itself, but of the MPAA rating; it’s a shameful outrage that Beowulf received PG-13 instead of R. The film may be animated, but so what? Any film in which limbs are ripped-off, blood is splattered, and Angelina Jolie appears naked IS NOT for children. This is animation for adults, a concept other cultures have been familiar with for quite some time. Any live-action movie with half this much nudity and gore would be rated R, and PG-13 (not to mention an animated PG-13) means that many parents with bad judgment will bring along their 5 year-olds.

The final action sequence with the dragon is incredible, featuring a level of excitement that the movie should have delivered all along. Beowulf has some solid action, impressive animation, and a few other virtues, but it could have been so much more than the sum of its parts. As is, this story seems less like an authentic telling of Beowulf and more like “a mere hanger-on in hero’s armor.”

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sexual material and nudity.

Nothing, and I mean NOTHING about this movie is for kids. The violence is simply too much, and even 13 year-olds should be cautious. I think I would have been bothered at age 13 by some of the images here, though I do admit that the 3D experience is surely much more intense than traditional screenings, and it will be even less intense on a television. Still, definitely prescreen it for your young teenagers, and please, please, DO NOT take your children.

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