One of the oldest surviving stories is retold through one of the most modern of technologies in a thrilling 3-D adventure from director Robert Zemeckis.
The epic poem, Beowulf is about a great hero who battles with three terrifying monsters. First is Grendel, who comes to the mead hall of King Hrothgar (voice of Anthony Hopkins), smashing walls and tearing apart Hrothgar’s men, whose armor and weapons have no effect on the creature.
A warrior arrives, promising to rid Hrothgar of Grendel, bellowing, “I am Beowulf, and I am here to kill your monsTAH!” (voice of Ray Winstone).
Beowulf takes off his armor, puts down his sword, and fights Grendel naked and bare-handed. The battle is terrifying, but Beowulf rips off Grendel’s arm. Grendel goes home to die, and his mother (voice of Angelina Jolie) swears revenge.
She may not appear as scary, but her weapons are more insidious. Grendel may have crunched on men’s heads like caramel corn, but his mother has other ways to destroy. Beowulf’s sword turns to water in her presence.
He resturns to Hrothgar’s hall victorious and becomes king. But he has one more monster to fight, a fire-breathing dragon.
The screenplay from Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary takes some major liberties with the story, especially with the character of Grendel’s mother, whose looks and behavior in the original were a long way from Angelina Jolie’s seductive, spike heels-wearing sea-monster. But it is true to the structure and spirit of the epic saga and its picture of a heroic era on the brink of major changes in the way humans thought about themselves, their challenges, and their destiny. A character who has asked the Norse gods for help wonders if he should also try praying to “the new God, Jesus?” And Beowulf says that with the growth of Christianity, “the time of heroes is ended.” He means that heroes will not be fighting monsters anymore, at least not inhuman creatures. He understands that Christianity will bring a new way to measure heroes.
The most anachronistic detail — other than those Jimmy Choo-like stilletos — is the use of sarcastic clapping, which is most likely a late 20th century invention. The voice talent is strong, especially Hopkins and Winstone, but the star of the movie is the visual effects. The technology of motion capture animation and 3D has advanced substantially. The swoops of perspective shifts and tactile details are not just show-offs; they help the story unfold. And sometimes it seems to unfold right into your lap as blood (and, at one point, drool) drip and ooze and spears and arrows shoot out inches from your face. The people who told this story around the campfire 1300 years ago would love it.
Parents should know that the movie has explicit and graphic violence, battle scenes, grisly images, and nudity that would have rated an R if it had been a live-action film. There are some sexual references, including boasts and insults. Characters drink and get drunk.
Family discussion: This epic poem has been enormously influential for writers like J.R.R. Tolkein. Where do you see similarities to “Lord of the Rings” and other fantasy adventure stories? What do you think Wiglaf will decide after the end of the movie? Why does Grendel’s mother tell Beowulf he is as much a monster as her son? Why does Beowulf say that “we men are the monsters now?”
If you like this try: Dragonslayer and 300 (rated R). And they may want to read the book.