Beowulf uses the same style of motion-capture animation that director Robert Zemeckis employed in The Polar Express. The film is based upon the epic Saxon poem, written around the 8th century. While it has become a national treasure in England, its setting and characters are actually Scandinavian. The film is only loosely based on the poem although I doubt there are many who have read the epic, as it’s a bit of a laborious read, even with a modern translation.
The film opens in Heorot, the great hall of Danish King Hrothgar. The aged, rotund King (Hopkins) and his men are celebrating a victory in battle. Hrothgar stumbles about drunkenly, and near naked. His men sing the praises of their King but their exuberance is interrupted by the arrival of the monster Grendel who literally crashes the party, killing nearly everyone on the hall yet strangely unwilling to fight Hrothgar, even when challenged. The King offers half his fortune to any man who can kill Grendel but none who venture to haunted moors where the beast lives, ever return.
The legendary hero Beowulf (Winstone) arrives with a company of his soldiers and promises to slay the giant. He is not all bravado as he succeeds in his task but is faced with the even more daunting task of slaying Grendel’s unnamed mother (Jolie).
The first impression of Beowulf’s character in the film is that he is, frankly, a bit of a prick. He’s arrogant and prideful, and loves to boast about his deeds. He’s not above hitting on Queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn) even when the King is nearby. He even lies through his teeth about killing Grendel’s mother although the King sees through the lie and knows what truly happen when the hero encountered the demonic she-creature. Ultimately though, Beowulf does redeem himself. With Hrothgar having no heir, he proclaims that Beowulf will be the new King upon his death. Many years later, an aged Beowulf must be the hero one more time to rescue his kingdom from a fire-breathing dragon, the latest offspring of Grendel’s mother.
The motion-capture in Beowulf is leagues ahead of Polar Express. While Express was a fantasy and could be excused for a lot of whimsy, this film had to go for a grittier, more realistic look. Everything from the character’s movements and facial expressions to the lighting and shadows, and depth of texturing was breathtaking. In particular, the Grendel character was perhaps the most intriguing. He is a broken, twisted, and deformed monster. Every moment of his pitiful life is painful. Even the mirthful singing of Hrothgar’s men was torment to his ears. Crispin Glover plays the role of Grendel with spastic ingenuity. Jolie was just creepy no matter how 3-D animated naked she happened to be…Hopkins seemed to relish his role King, gleefully prancing about in the opening scenes much to the embarrassment of his Queen. Brendan Gleeson also stood out as Beowulf’s second-in-command, Wilglaf. The fine Irish character actor always brings a strong presence to every performance.
Certain liberties were taken with the script. In the original tale Beowulf returns to his homeland where he becomes King as opposed to taking Hrothgar’s crown. As pointed out in one of the featurettes, this was done to forward the continuity of the film. And while I understand that a film does need conflict and all, I just didn’t like the attempt to make Beowulf a flawed hero.
It’s not a perfect, or even great film. There’s not a lot of time expended in developing characters, particularly Grendel’s mother who we learn almost nothing about. It’s an exciting film, bloodier than one may think and visually arresting. While the motion-capture process will never replace actual live film, in moderation and with the right material, they can be first-rate entertainment. Beowulf hits store shelves on February
A Hero’s Journey: The Making of Beowulf runs 23:40 and looks at every aspect of the making of the film.
Beasts of Burden: Designing the Creatures of Beowulf takes a look at the character designs of all the monsters in the film. 6:54
The Origins of Beowulf examines the original Beowulf epic poem 5:12
Creating the Ultimate Beowulf charts the design of the main character
The Art of Beowulf is 5:22 worth of design art, sketches, and models of the film
There's also about 10:00 worth of Deleted Scenes