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You should know something about me. I love “Beowulf.” Not the movie — the book.
Back in college, I needed a few credits, so I took a “Beowulf” seminar. What I thought was going to be three months of history lessons on the Germanic tribes turned out to be a full semester of translating the “Beowulf” manuscript — all 3,000-plus lines — from the original Old English, sweating under the gaze of a warty, septuagenarian linguist while he droned, “Now, this verb. Is it intransitive, or transitive?”
While that just might be the eighth circle of hell, I came out the back end of that class with a whole new love and appreciation for “Beowulf”: The language, the story and especially the characters themselves and what they stood for — honor, glory and the safety that can only come from everybody knowing you're the baddest sumbitch in town.
Those are lessons that director Robert Zemeckis and his screenwriters obviously had no interest in learning. In their new adaptation of “Beowulf,” the hero's quest for glory is westernized into a wholly selfish pursuit, more about stroking one man's ego than protecting Beowulf's people through reputation. Combine that with computer animation that makes all the characters look like those silicone love dolls favored by Japanese perverts, and you've got a real stinker on your hands.
As in the book, King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) has got a problem. Every time he opens his fabulous new mead hall to festivities, it is attacked by the giant monster Grendel (Crispin Glover), a hideous sorta-troll who lives in a mountain cave that — through a trick of acoustics — magnifies every sound into an ear-splitting cacophony. Soon, word of Grendel spreads, along with Hrothgar's offer of half his country's gold to any man who can kill the monster. Eventually, the story comes to the ear of the legendary hero Beowulf (Ray Winstone, in an unfortunate Olivia-Newton-John-esque headband). After a buck-nekkid battle with Grendel leaves the creature with his arm torn off, Beowulf pursues Grendel to his mountain cave. There, he meets Grendel's considerably hotter mother (Angelina Jolie), who strikes a terrible bargain with Beowulf. It's a deal that will come back to haunt our hero 50 years later, when he's on the throne of his own kingdom.
Though screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery do come up with an interesting way to bridge the seemingly unconnected beginning and end of the “Beowulf” text, it is at the expense of everything Beowulf the character stands for. In the manuscript, Beowulf is Christ on a Barry Bonds cocktail, infallible both physically and mentally. Here, he's just some reckless schlub who gets lucky — a braggart and liar who isn't even trusted by his own men. While that's the perfect set-up for a Hollywood-style “redemption before death” scene, it doesn't do a thing for those of us who know the real character. And what to say about the animation? You can't tell me that animating the story in this fashion is any cheaper than building sets and costumes and CGI monsters. So, the question becomes: Why do it? It detracts from the film, it obscures the work of some fairly fine actors, and — most of all — it just looks friggin' creepy.
In short, this one is a real loser, even if you've never read a line of “Beowulf.” If you must see it, my suggestion is wait a few months and pick it up when it hits the sawbuck bin at Sprawl-Mart.
— David Koon
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