Beowulf: The Death of a Hero
It is hard for me to write out my thought on the new animated film, Beowulf, written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary. It is loosely based on the epic poem of English legend. Directed by Robert Zemeckis (Polar Express), the movie features an all star cast:
Ray Winstone (The Chronicles of Narnia) as Beowulf
Anthony Hopkins (Dracula) as Hrothgar
Robin Wright Penn (Princess Bride) as Queen Wealtheow
Dominic Keating (Star Trek Enterprise) as old Cane
Alison Lohman (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind) as Ursula
John Malkovich (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) as Unferth
Crispin Glover (Back to the Future) as Grendel
Brendan Gleeson (Mad-eye Moody from the Harry Potter Films) as Wiglaf
Angelina Jolie (Tomb Raider) as Grendel's Mother
Just to name a few. The movie was made with the same motion capture tech that Polar Express was. I suppose I have to stop stalling now.
It was a great film overall, but there are many things that bothered me, but before I delve into them too much, I want to lay a foundation from which to build.
Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary did not write a film adaptation of the epic poem, they reimagined the story. They tried to explain Grendel and his mother's motivations. They are not mere monsters. Grendel is driven mad by the resonating cacophony from Hrothgar's mead hall, attacking the village to silence them. Beowulf is motivated by his desire for glory. In their retelling, the story is no longer a story about sacrifice and glory. This new film version is the a deconstruction of the hero.
Like the Thirteenth Warrior (another retelling of Beowulf), the new story is great on its own, even though it pales in comparison with the original. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, but I have a few things against it.
The Animation Quality
The film strived for an ultra-realism that it simply cannot deliver. While the heights the film reaches are spectacular, it is unable to maintain them for any prolonged period. At times, the film has mismatched levels of quality within the same frame. For example, in the scene between Beowulf and Grendel's Mother, Beowulf is stunningly realistic while Grendel's Mother looks like an amazingly sexy character from Shrek.
At times, the quirks in the animation became distracting. Every time they were on a horse, the animation devolved into a jerky cartoonish caricature of a person riding a horse. I found the inconsistencies to be distracting at times. They often took me out of the story and reminded me that I was watching a movie.
I too found the animation to be distracting, mainly the eyes. They were trying for a more realistic feel in the eyes of the characters and at times I thought they were bang on, but most of the time everyone had a lazy eye. It distracted from the story. Consistency is the key for best animation. As a fan I don't mind cartoonish animation because if it is a good story I will get lost in the story but if the quality fluctuates throughout the movie then I get pulled out of the experience.
Postmodern Deconstruction of the Hero
In this retelling, Beowulf is not a hero. He is not a blessing to his people, or a the glory of his race. He is a frail flawed non-hero whose own lust and desire nearly destroys his people. Personally, I am getting sick of these postmodern retellings of classic stories to rob them of their heroic virtue.
I might be alone in this, but I like my heroes to be heroic. About two-thirds of the way into the flick, I sort of checked out. The story had rung hollow for me.
At first I was very excited to see Beowulf acting heroic but by the end I felt robbed. Yes people have faults and flaws but why is it so hard today to just have a hero. Someone who is brave and strong, who faces the enemy and stands up for what is right without having to sellout. I felt dirty in the end. It was like watching the tale of the hippy generation all over again. I think another reason why the plight of the hero didn't sit well with me is that I have to live in the real world where those in authority keeps repeating the sins of their past passing down the problems from one generation to another and selling out to the devil for a period of peace. It makes me angry to see a hero act in a similar manner.
My last complaint is that the story bowed heavily to the established conventions for a feature film, which made parts of the film cliche and the end uselessly dramatic. From the moment they first showed the drinking horn, I knew how the film would end. The end lingered for too long so it could hit the expected disaster-release-disaster-release-disaster-release-black moment-release format that all of the screenplay books recommend.
Beowulf is a challenged and flawed film that meanders about never really finding its narrative or visual voice, but having said that, it is still a film that deserves to be seen, but probably not owned. I recommend that you pop this one onto your Netflix list and watch it when it comes out on DVD.