One line review: I didn’t hate it.
Long, long ago, when I was a small, unpromising child, my brother Moloch and I were given the gift of a ViewMaster for Christmas. If you’re one of our younger readers, you may never have seen a ViewMaster. It was a device for viewing stereoscopic images; pictures in 3-D. The pictures came on cardboard disks, and my favorite set of disks was the one portraying the story of Snow White.
This wasn’t the Disney version. Somebody had gone to great pains to carve and paint a number of posed character figures, and then to place them in dioramas and photograph them. Whoever did the job had a tremendous sense of composition and color, and I found the scenes fascinating and beautiful.
In a way, Beowulf is a lot like those ViewMaster scenes, with the added element of motion. I’ll confess right off the bat that I have a “gee-whiz,” little kid’s response to the novelty of watching a 3-D movie. Even when the effects take you out of the story (which, I must confess, they often do), I enjoy the ride.
The capture motion animation, in my opinion, is less successful. I think the response you’ll get from most people who come out of the film will be, “It was kind of weird.” I liked that the digital painting of the characters made them resemble the figures in my ViewMaster Snow White. And sometimes, particularly in the action scenes, I thought the animation was very effective.
But in the quieter scenes, especially, the ones that involved people interacting with each other, things were strangely off. Hands, facial expressions and body movements often seemed stilted, deformed or awkward, which is odd. If Disney was able to create elegant, naturalistic motions using drawings alone, how is it possible to make figures look less natural when you’re drawing right on top of actual filmed images?
I predict that this kind of animation will continue to be done, and will rapidly improve. Which means that Beowulf will not age well.
How did they treat the story? That’s also kind of weird, though it was far from reaching the low-end benchmark of the recent Canadian/Icelandic Beowulf and Grendel, which I reviewed here a while ago. That movie made the story a parable of European racism and imperialism, painting Grendel as the spotless hero and Beowulf as a Nazi, redeemed only by his profound self-doubts.
Beowulf treats the story with much more respect than that. The script, by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, follows the original poem in its general plot points, with the added bonus of including Beowulf’s last battle with the dragon, which most moviemakers would have omitted. In order to unify the theme, they make some major changes in the plot, though, mostly involving the character of Grendel’s mother, played (you must be aware by now) by Angelina Jolie without no clothes on. (I didn’t find this, actually, more pornographic, done in this kind of animation, than the skin-tight female uniforms so popular on recent versions of Star Trek. On top of that, Angelina J. has never been my idea of an appealing female. Unlike a dragon, she has not the least spot of vulnerability about her. Which, in a way, makes her perfect for the role. The stiletto heels, however, were a little too much; even if they were presumed to grow out of her feet.)
What intrigues me about the changes made in the story is that the authors have taken a Germanic heroic saga (in which the hero is bigger than life and essentially without fault, dying in the end merely because his fate-allotted time has run out) and changed it into a tragedy on the Greek model. The Greek tragedy centered on a hero with a fatal flaw—some weakness or appetite that compelled him to bring his own doom down upon himself. This plot pattern was eagerly taken up by Christian poets and playwrights, who recognized it as an ideal vehicle for expressing the Christian view of original sin.
This means that, in spite of the fact that most of the references to Christianity in the movie (anachronistic, by the way, as Christianity was hardly heard of in Denmark until at least a couple centuries later) are dismissive, and although the primary Christian spokesman in the movie is pictured as extremely brutal to his slaves, the writers have (probably without meaning to) essentially forced a Christian form and sensibility onto the pre-Christian story.
From a historical point of view, the costumes and sets were better than those in The Thirteenth Warrior (also based on “Beowulf,” and all in all a better film, but much debased by ridiculous, anachronistic armor), but not as good as those in Beowulf and Grendel (which tried to redeem its ruthless trashing of the whole saga by punctilious authenticity in its look). I saw some details, in helmets and swords and such things, that pleased me. But the designers, apparently, felt some compulsion to make a lot of the armor look sort of Greek or Roman (perhaps a subliminal nod to the Greek tragedy drift of the script).
I’ve never cared for bare-legged warriors. Real Vikings wear trousers (which leaves completely to one side Beowulf’s totally naked fight with Grendel).
Well, I could go on, but it all works out to the same thing. Beowulf is a bold and ambitious treatment of a classic epic. It’s entertaining and worth seeing (Leave the kids at home, though. It should have gotten a more restricted rating than PG-13).
If you’re not interested in this sort of thing, don’t bother. If you are, see it now before it becomes something we all look back at and laugh.