I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to see Robert Zemeckis’ “BEOWULF” in 3D on opening day yesterday in Burbank. I had intentionally not read the reviews and it had been hard from the previews to tell whether this was going to take more from the epic poem than the name — and as someone who toiled mightily over the old English text of the original (I can still recite the first 10 lines or so) — I probably was set up to hate what would inevitably be a cheesy ripoff adaptation of the great seminal work of English literature. Remember — I’m the guy who put an old English speaking damsel (Ilona) into a Transylvanian vampire flick, Vlad, and had 3 old English advisors check the dialogue to make sure it was accurate. Secretly, without admitting it to myself, I’m thinking it’s a lock that I’m going to hate Beowulf for dishonoring the core material.
Wrong. It’s great. I loved it. It follows the basic outline of the original story quite faithfully and the changes it introduces actually solve the big problem with the original story with a psychological layering (and a bit of borrowing from the Arthurian legend) that is brilliant and makes the story work on levels that have echoes of Aeschylus and Euripides — and it has all this psychological compllexity while presenting eye-popping 3D kick-ass action mojo in a way that is frankly jaw-dropping.
It intrigues me to think about the decision-making process that led to this result, because someone has done some very excellent work here.
The original story follows Beowulf, a young warrior, who has learned that the Danish regal Hrothgar and his people are being tormented by the monster Grendel, who regularly attacks them in the King’s mead hall. He arrives, slays Grendel, fights Grendel’s mother, then flashes forward to many years later where Beowulf fights his final battle with a dragon, is killed, and is honored.
The ‘update’ by Zemeckis and company follows this basic outline but, brilliantly in my view, layers in one of the most compelling elements of the Arthurian tradition to good effect. In the Arthurian material, Arthur is done in by his nephew Mordred and in many of the versions (notably Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur), it turns out that Mordred is actually Arthur’s son by his half-sister Ygerna, a seductress with whom he engages in “lust” without (in some versions) knowing who she was. I.e. Arthur committed “incest by accident” and Mordred is the offspring who comes back to ultimately kill Arthur.
What Zemeckis does is create the notion of Grendel’s mother as an Ygerna-like seductress who, in the backstory, seduced King Hrothgar thus begettin Grendel who is Hrothgar’s secret son — and then when Beowulf, after killing Grendel, fights the seductress/mom, she (and who better than Angelina Jolie for this role) seduces Beowulf, physically and spiritually, with a secret promise that comes back to haunt him the final battle years later with the dragon — who, it turns out — is Beowulf’s son. So the final battle with the dragon is perfectly tied, in Zemeckis version, to the Hrothgar/Grendel/Grendel’s mother cycle and Beowulf’s death has a healthy dose of “hubris” associated with it, and has the same sense of tragic “just desserts” that you get in Arthur — with the hero falling at the hands of his ill-begotten son, the product of a lustful liaison that he should have had the strength to resist all those many years ago.
Still with me? I have a feeling I’m lapsing into lapsed English major intricacies but the point is, Zemeckis and company did a terrific job of updating the story in a way that strengthens it without abandoning the core material — and does so, brilliantly in my view, by drawing on the other great piece of English hero-tale history, the Arthurian material.
The other big reason to go see this movie is that it lives right on some peculiarly intriguing border between live action and animation. There’s a little waxiness to the texture of the faces – but even this is used to good effect as Beowulf, near the end of his days, becomes more subtly human and less motion-captured CG. In other words, the style is used in service to the story. And the action is really breath-taking, including all the old tricks that some of us remember from the last round of 3D films quite a few years ago — spears flying at the audience, making the audience gasp when it feels it’s about to hit you. Good fun, great stuff. And the dragon at the end is just the most perfectly imagined dragon ever. May sound like a small thing…but think about it, suppose you had the job of coming up with the greatest dragon ever and you actually nailed it? Not a bad little footnote in history.
Final note: I’m also putting up a Beowulf Gallery over to the right with pix and some discussion of the motion capture and 3D effects. And by the way if anybody’s wondering how I have enough time on my hands to spend this much time on Beowulf, pls just consider it a Saturday-morning-while-watching-college-football self indulgence….