Grand old Beowulf, a tale pretty much as old as time, being the oldest poem in recorded existence that is and the story that has inspired generations of just about everyone, from storytellers to academics.
With that in mind its easy to approach this modern adaptation extremely cynically, how can a Director like Robert Zemeckis of all people bring this story to the big screen and still honour the heritage of it, especially in an animated feature? In short the answer is… He sort of pulls it off.
In my opinion there was two ways of approaching the film, a straight up slow, medieval, sprawling fantasy feature, in the vein of The Lord of the rings or a short concise retelling of the story. The filmmakers have gone with the latter and with good reason, it works for the films exaggerated and ridiculous themes of masculinity and power.
While Writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary have defiled the source material, in doing so they have created a wildly fun and entertaining animated romp, that for all its faults, doesn’t outstay its welcome while its onscreen.
As mentioned before this film is animated and at the time (standing a decade old now) it looked great, the film still holds up now, some of the animation is a little strange with the character movements (especially horses) but the detail captured on the actors emoting is quite impressive and isn’t too distracting. Ray Winstone spoke about wearing the motion capture suits and joked that they were extremely tight, which while proving awkward for him, seemed absolutely fine for Angeline Jolie.
Robert Zemeckis directs the film and to be fair, is an obvious choice in terms of the style of the film. He was just coming off the back of the Polar Express which employed similar technology and it made sense for an experienced director to take the reigns on what is quite a complex piece of cinema. The film employs close to 300 cameras for its special effects which is still a mighty jump from the polar express which “only” used 64-72. Zemeckis’ direction is sturdy here, he gets the right performances out of his actors and he knows how to use the camera. It is of course always difficult to gauge how much input directors have over animated 3D features, especially since the special effects team do so much work.
The cinematography here is luscious, I’m a huge sucker for medieval imagery in film and this is no different, from the snow covered halls to the dark, jewel ridden cave of Grendel’s mother, everything looks gorgeous. Cinematographer Robert Presley has clearly worked carefully with the lighting and art department to really absorb you into the world, similar to The Polar Express this is, in its own way, a Christmas/winter film. For me this is one of the major selling points of the film and would recommend you see this if you love classic fantasy films that have huge creatures to vanquish and have conversations in dimly lit feasting halls.
One of the fascinating attributes that this film possesses are its performances, Zemeckis has gathered an extremely bizarre collection of actors, this is of course, a compliment.
Playing our titular hero we have Ray Winstone as Beowulf. I LOVE Winstone in this, he is clearly having a lot of fun with the role. His gruff booming voice just suits the character perfectly, when he gives his epic speeches that are laden with testosterone you 100% believe them. Although his performance isn’t all about being a manly man, he also does have some touching emotional moments, For example, when he looks back on his past with some regret and unhappiness. Winstone is given the most to do in the film and he handles it really well, I feel this is one of his more overlooked performances, as he sells every aspect of it.
Angeline Jolie plays Grendel’s mother and was the casting choice that gained the film a lot of its traction before release, she is a sultry and seductive character that Jolie is more than capable of pulling off. This character is something a little different to what she has played before and her smooth voice along with her enticing eyes help the audience understand her sex appeal. Especially when it comes to many a brave warrior falling in love with her not only her beauty, but also her promises of unimaginable glory. It’s funny because the press went wild for the fact that Jolie appears “naked” in this film. She in fact does not, her lady parts are covered and any supposed nude shots required an uncredited double (Rachael Bernstein), this is one of the those ridiculous publicity scandals that are used purely to sell tickets, which must prove very frustrating for actresses… And teenage boys.
Crispin Glover plays Grendel who is the monster Beowulf must conquer to attain his glory, Glover has had an extremely varied career and this performance is another string to add to his bow. Grendel is a very creepy character and also extremely intimidating, with his brute strength and size. His wailing voice and constant jittery stature give him an unhinged and slightly sympathetic angle for the audience. Glover really works here and even gets to deliver some old English, which is the language the original poem is written in. Interestingly in the poem he actually doesn’t speak and only sings a song of sorrow. He is very similar to Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings and Glover of course went through a similar process to Andy Serkis to get his performance captured.
Robin Wright is in the film intermittently as Wealthow, who is a side-lined character here, she is essentially the woman that men initially crave but then she seems to be trampled on once they attain her. I really like Robin Wright, she is always an attractive screen presence and is also a very talented singer (she adds to the films soundtrack) she isn’t given much to do here, but she adds to a quality cast.
Anthony Hopkins is Hrothgar who employs Beowulf to defeat Grendel, he is a fallen king who is an embarrassment to his wife. Hopkins’ commanding voice is implemented well here, his stoic voice reeks of a king who’s glory days have long surpassed him, but is also haunted by them in his old age.
Brendan Gleeson is Wiglaf who is Beowulfs right hand man, he is the voice of reason and genuinely cares for Beowulf, he is not interested in women, power or gold and is the most relatable of the characters.
John Malkovich is the final big name and character in the cast, he plays the weasel faced Unferth, he is the Kings advisor and is initially extremely hesitant of Beowulf’s exaggerated stories. For point of reference his character is closely relatable to Grima Wormtongue, a couple of Lord Of The Rings references I know … I make no apologies.
The soundtrack composed by Alan Silvestri is Bombastic and valiant, I really like it, my favourite tracks are the ones performed by Robin Wright but I also like “What We Need Is a Hero”, “I Am Beowulf” and “He Has a Story to Tell”. The deep horns and drums add to the mythology of the film and put you in the time and place of which it is set (Denmark A.D. 507).
I think it should be noted that the film is quite violent and sexual, it had a 12A rating and to be fair pushes it pretty far, men have limbs severed, people are impaled and burnt alive and there are strong themes of nudity and sex running through it with one warrior asking one of the women of the town if she’ll give him a “quick gobble”. I think accepting the films brash tone will depend largely on whether you enjoy it or not.
In conclusion the film is compelling enough to last its 1 hour and 55 minute runtime, I was never bored and always absorbed in the world that Zemeckis had created, if more diehard fans come to this film expecting heavier themes I think they will be disappointed. The Christian imagery is there but not particularly explored, only in passing dialogue “The time of heroes’ is dead Wiglaf, the Christ god killed it.”. The sins of the fathers is also apparent but how much you get from that depends on what you bring to the film.
I own the film on Blu-ray and the standard edition comes with a wealth of extras including the Directors cut. I wont list all the extras here because there are too many, but with the current price of the Blu-ray, its a worthy investment if you really want to delve deeper into the film. There is also a steelbook available but unfortunately it is only on DVD, you can get them both from Amazon here: