BEOWULF is indeed a work of Legend! - So Says Harry!
There are some weeks as a film fan where I genuinely feel blessed. This week was one of those. It started off this Monday with a screening of BEOWULF in 3D, then came THE MIST and then finally this morning with a digital screening of the final fondling of BLADE RUNNER.
Now I know BEOWULF’s characters have looked less than life like – and the overall look isn’t quite the FRANK FRAZETTA painting that we had hoped for, but here’s the secret of this film.
It seems nobody in advance of production thought to look at the film from the stand point of which sequence to get ready first to get folks the absolute most excited for the film. What was shown at Comic Con was ill-conceived as a clip. The “Austin Powers” Beowulf with Grendel’s arm – a truncated battle scene and Angelina Jolie appearing are not the moments that you come away with at the end of the final product.
What strikes me is this… In the entire history of American Animated/Mimed/Puppeted films… we’ve never seen an adult story told. And in this case, we’re literally dealing with one of the greatest stories, myths or legends ever told – re-interpretated by the co-quills of Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary.
Let me start at the beginning. When the film starts – I was distracted by the look of the movie… for about 5 minutes. Then, suddenly… as the tormented Grendel begins to be pained by the noisy humans… the loud, inconsiderate, drunk, fornicating braggarts of Denmark… It pains poor Grendel… and he communicates this physically, not in dialogue… and the result is filled with pathos. He’s a tumored, diseased demon creature… some horrid half-breed of man and the supernatural. He turned out twisted and sad… anything, but magnificent – and the pain that human kind causes him in his cave… far far away could not be conceived by those in the valley below.
Also in this opening sequence, we see the disdain that Robin Wright Penn’s youthful Wealthow feels for her drunken, belching, would be nudist king of a husband, Hrothgar (Sir Anthony Hopkins.) There is something she knows that repulses her from touching or loving her regal husband. It isn’t his age, it’s something in his past. Something that keeps him more mead than water. Drinking to oblivion.
Also in this opening we’re given an introduction to John Malkovich’s advisor to the king, Unferth – far from the lackluster villain that Moriarty made out, Malkovich’s Unferth is no villain. With his King, he is shown to feel the King is not really fit for rule. Watching out for him, seeking to do what his King can not or will not… which is of course overstepping his boundaries as advisor to Hrothgar.
The first attack from Grendel is furious – limbs flying, blood gushing… any that whimper, cry, scream or attack are torn asunder. Your only protection is to be still, silent and unobserved. Malkovich’s Unferth shows his wise cowardice and Hopkins’ Hrothgar reveals his bravery… and shame with his stand down of this creature.
The great Mead Hall is condemned and a decree by the King to bestow wealth, fame and more upon a Hero abroad is what brings Beowulf and his men. Through a torrential storm they row, seeking not the king’s gold, but the legendary status, the glory of spectacular victory. Beowulf is not a normal man, but not exactly a hero yet. He sails through this maelstrom for immortality through song and legend. And his men would fight by his side unto death.
It is with Beowulf and his right hand man, Wiglaf that the film begins to soar. I think this is for a couple of reasons. I think it helps in the film that Beowulf and Wiglaf look nothing like Ray Winstone and Brendan Gleeson. They’re invisible behind their computer generated forms. And in the future, I feel Zemeckis and all others that attempt to use Motion Capture to tell a tale – that they would do well to steer away from attempting to recreate a photo-real interpretation of a famous living actor or actress. It serves only to remind us that we are not seeing that subtlety and life of a beloved performer. Constantly reminding us that they are not really onscreen. This doesn’t ruin the film, but is a distraction that Beowulf and Wiglaf do not have.
I never liked BEOWULF in the posters or the trailers. His character seemed to be screaming constantly… trying to be an inhuman reminder of King Leonidas – but instead of the word SPARTA it was BEOWULF. Well… in the whole film – he never once strikes me this way. He’s a character of legend. Born a foot and a half taller than all other men. He’s a man of legend… chiseled like a hero should. His character is big and bold – boisterous and adept at Tall Tales regarding his own exploits. We also see that he has a weakness for the unusual…
His initial quarrels with Unferth are classic, the exchanged snips and snaps are sharp, witty and fast. His tale of why he lost a race is classic – and the visualization of this is pure tall tale work. The result is one of those feelings where we see his ambition, the disbelief of those around him and the quiet understanding and weariness of his men… who have heard variations upon the tale at various levels of grandeur.
Until Beowulf’s fight with Grendel – we are very much in the same position as Unferth. We see Beowulf as a possibly self-deluded egotist with designs on the King’s child bride. There is much to doubt in this Prince from across the sea. And when he disrobes before the queen to fight Grendel as he comes – naked and unarmed – it feels like a line, not a noble gesture…. Until Grendel comes.
When Grendel lays into the hall and into Beowulf’s men – we see that Beowulf is not just a braggart, but that he uses his men to test the foe before him. He watches and waits to spot a weakness. He gets his ass handed to him a couple of times, but eventually he finds Grendel’s flaw and strikes. You don’t feel like cheering him on, Grendel is a monster, but a malformed one. A diseased wretch needing to be plucked from his further suffering, and when he tears Grendel’s arm from his body – and the wounded Grendel makes his way back to his mother – living long enough to speak the name of his murderer to his mother… You do not cheer, you may even whimper.
Thus begins the real tale. The tale of Beowulf’s shame, the falsehood of his heroic life. How he, like Hrothgar before him, has a secret shame. Watching the people worship him, wishing him well- He’s fighting to add to his legend, while knowing his story is only a lie. That he is a hero to all, but himself.
Now he’s old, scarred, yet strong. A man of legend, but who knows the truth behind it all. The cursed agreement with a demon Harlot… himself a whore to magic and the witch. Trading his services for false honor and ill-gotten glory.
Until one day, a symbol of that deal returns to him… telling him, his time given is coming to an end – and that if he is ever to be free of the witch, if he’s ever to be worthy of legend, he must again return to the fray. To be the legend that dwarfs reenact on his anniversary of shame. To at last be the KING, the LEADER and the HERO of man against the creatures that cause men to shudder and be weak.
It is at this point where the movie is legend. It’s no longer a film of technique, you don’t think of actors with balls glued all over them. Instead at this point – the film has become a tale told again and again for over 13 centuries. It is here, where it is time to witness legend unleashed, heroism, sacrifice and the sort of greatness we are blessed to see envisioned from the imagination of the Dark Ages and trumpeted upon the whiz-bangery of 3D High Tech 21st century spectacle.
I saw this in a room with 5 others and couldn’t help cheering the old King on as he fought once again. There was a tad of EXCALIBUR magic to this film. It wasn’t Frazetta, it was like a Hildebrandt dream brought to motion – filled with sound and fury. A desperate, hopeless and painful leap from the age of magic, sorcery, demons and legend – as the world was stumbling forward to the age of enlightenment…. Here we had our last desperate mythological hero battling the last sired creature from the depths of our ID and I loved it.
I have to give it to Zemeckis, Avary and Gaiman – they pulled it off. None of us that watched this screening thought we’d be cheering or trumpeting this. When I read Moriarty’s review – I was worried that he’d taken some devil’s weed into those boisterous lungs of his – and his judgment was hampered…
Instead, I can say he’s just insane, in regards to Malkovich’s character. Who has a fascinating arc… going from disbeliever to being the first to swallow the Kool-Aid. He goes from believing in nothing, to believing in Beowulf, to being a believer in Christ. A true believer, whose beliefs are shaken, but not crushed.
The 3D is spectacular, but is overtaken by the story itself. I ceased to be concerned with the dimensional beauty – and was taken by the story and the characters. And with a movie that’s spending over a million a minute – for the story to shine above all is something I think we could all wish for more often.
On another note… in the history of Man versus Dragons – you’ve never ever seen anything even approaching how fucking awesome this scene is. It’s truly jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring.
Alan Silvestri’s score is pitch perfect and all the work by all the digital artist continued to create a legendary place for our imaginations to play. And Doug Chiang? BRAV-fucking-O!!! Great Dragon!!!
See this any way you can, but if you can see it in 3D… be it IMAX, REAL D or DOLBY 3D… get to it. I saw it in mere REAL D and it left my dick in the dirt.