November 22, 2007

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Beowulf (PG-13)
Animated warriors with all the warmth and personality of Ken dolls fight scary monsters and a naked Angelina Jolie in Beowulf, a motion-capture animated film which riffs on that poem you didn’t read in high school.

I didn’t read it either; I’m pretty sure I didn’t even do more than skim the Cliff Notes. It’s one of those dense stories (ahem, Ulysses) that causes eye cloud-over and instant sleepiness, making it near impossible to penetrate past the first page. Until I saw this movie, my most significant Beowulf memory was of Michael and Gary on thirtysomething discussing the book during what might have been the last conversation before long-haired professor Gary died in a car accident. In retrospect, Beowulf is perfect for a thirtysomething discussion — it’s highbrow yet, though few people have read it, most people have heard of it.

If you were hoping to increase your pretending-like-you-read-Beowulf abilities via this movie, beware: the film rather significantly differs from the poem in terms of its story. Also, even in Old English (a language that looks more like the languages of its Scandinavian setting than modern English) the dialogue was not nearly as bad as it is here.

Beowulf (Ray Winstone) of the Geats arrives at the great hall of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) so soon after the most recent massacre there that the blood probably isn’t dried yet. Nonetheless, the Danes sweep out the hall and bring out the mead to toast Beowulf, a hero from afar who has come to fight the terrible, man-crunching demon Grendel (Crispin Glover), who is attracted to the hall every time there’s merriment afoot. (Imagine if every time you had a party, that neighbor who lives beneath you didn’t just complain to management but actually came up and bit the heads off a few of your guests to make the noise stop. Grendel’s like that.)

Beowulf tells Queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn), to whom he’s dangerously attracted, to play her harp and sing her song and bring on the demon. Beowulf also decides to fight Grendel in the nude because he doesn’t want his Geat-ish tunic constricting his movements or something like that. And thus does a naked Beowulf (with his little warrior obscured by assorted weapons and debris) fight and ultimately defeat Grendel, who looks a bit like the world’s creepiest bobblehead, but with inside-out skin and a lopsided mouth.

The Danes cheer Beowulf’s victory but Grendel’s mother (Angelina Jolie) is royally peeved. She flies to the great hall in the dark of night to show how a real demon does it, and when Beowulf wakes up in the morning nearly all of his men are dead.

Realizing that his hero work’s not over, Beowulf sets out to find Grendel’s mother, a task that has King Hrothgar and Queen Wealthow throwing off looks — guilty and angry, respectively. See, Grendel wasn’t just any demon and Grendel’s mother is really good at getting heroes to forget about the killing-her part of their mission. As Beowulf learns when he enters Grendel’s mother’s lair, this dragon can also turn herself into a fetching naked girl with all of her bits PG-13ly covered by gold paint. Quicker than you can say “so, come to this marsh often?” Beowulf finds himself entangled in a whole different kind of wrestling match with the demon.

OK, so it’s not the real Beowulf story — I can live with that. The story presented is one of heroic code, arrogance, regret, the folly of youth and the always fantastic tension between the pagan and Christian Europe — close enough to the tone of the parts of the story I can remember and good enough to make a cracking adventure in its own right. And Beowulf could have been fun but loses some of its initial zap because the dialogue telling the story is so shockingly bad. In 300, the Spartans spoke relatively modern tough-guy “I crashed the helicopter with the car because I ran out of bullets” lines. (“I am not your queen” is not Shakespeare but paired with the action it was awesome.) Beowulf seems to want to take itself seriously but ends up with pap that sounds like it was left over from some B movie sandal epic back in the 1950s. The single best line of the movie — “She’s not my curse, not anymore” — isn’t nearly as interestingly delivered in the movie as it is in the trailer and much of the dialogue from Gre
ndel and Grendel’s mother is obscured by those characters’ ridiculous accents (I guess ever since Alexander Jolie’s been itching to use that accent again).

Even that might not have killed the movie had it looked better. The motion-capture animation makes things — the ocean, boats, dragons — look great but people look awful. The movie is shown in 3-D in some theaters (IMAX as well as on regular screens) but even with the action popping right out into your lap I doubt that the characters would feel lifelike. (I saw the film in regular old 2D, which is how most of the theaters in southern New Hampshire are showing it.) They humans seem flat, like paper dolls arranged for some senior English diorama by a student who’s depserately hoping that the scene he portrays is actually in the book somewhere. There is plenty of detail on the faces of Beowulf and Wealthow, but there is no life, no emotion that can transcend the “ctrl plus ) equals happy” way that the animation conveys their feelings.

300 wasn’t great literature but it was a great movie. Beowulf offers a decent action story but it’s bogged down by too many attempts at greatness — the animation being the most glittering, distracting one of them all — to really get going. These might be the same sort of muscle men locked in life and death struggle but, sadly, this is not Sparta. B-

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sexual material and nudity. Directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, Beowulf is an hour and 53 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Warner Bros. Pictures International and Paramount Pictures.