Note: The Beowulf screening that I attended was held at a massively awesome IMAX cinema in London. The film was presented in a frankly stunning 3-D format that I honestly cannot wait to experience again. Having said that, I shall try to review the film in two parts: the presentation and the film itself.
Part I: The Presentation
Holy ****ing moly. I've simply never seen anything like it. IMAX 3-D and a movie that was tailor-made for this kind of presentation. Not a "big-scale" movie that just happened to look good on a giant screen (like, say, Superman Returns), but a film that was actually constructed with the giant 3-D exhibition in mind. And to say it works resoundingly well is an understatement on par with "baby ducks are cute." Having spent the last thirty years scouring through as many movies as humanly possible, I consider myself a passionate-yet-cynical flick-watcher. It takes a lot for me to be "stunned," "dazzled," or "amazed" -- but this screening of Beowulf is something I'll remember for a very long time. Basically, this is the finest "3-D" experience I've ever witnessed, from the "yikes, it's coming right at me!" stuff to the feeling of total "immersion" in the story. On a purely visual scale, Beowulf is one of the most entertaining movies I've ever seen.
Spend the extra gas money if you have to, but find an IMAX theater and see the flick there. You won't be sorry.
Part II: The Movie
My main problem with Robert Zemeckis' most recent animated experiment (The Polar Express) was that it was very lovely to look at, but I found a hollow core at the center. Very little heart, and even less of a narrative, basically: A cinematic novelty item. But when I heard that Zemeckis would be teaming with writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary for a relatively faithful adaptation of the legendary Beowulf poem, I was more than a little intrigued. Having recalled enough of Beowulf from high school to know that it was a grim and moody adventure story, I filed this flick into my "wanna see" pile and waited to see how things turned out.
So to those of you who don't have an IMAX cinema within driving distance, I can offer the following: Beowulf is a surprisingly ballsy experiment and an unexpectedly entertaining flick. Ballsy because, for a movie so pricey and massive, it sure is DARK -- and entertaining simply because it's a fast-paced and wonderfully pulpy throwback to the "swords and sandals" adventures that we all loved as a kid. Sure, there's a little "strangeness" to the affair: The CGI characters (many of whom look exactly like the actors who provide the voices) take a little getting used to, and some of the more florid moments come dangerously close to 'camp' territory, but at its best, Beowulf is like Shrek meets Frank Frazetta on the set of 300. (And frankly I'm kind of stunned that the filmmakers got away with a PG-13 rating on this film; it's really quite harsh, violent and gory! Yay!)
If you don't remember much of Beowulf, here's a very brief recap: A horrific creature called Grendel is massacring King Hrothgar's men, so a call goes out for heroes. Along with a dozen brutes, Beowulf arrives on the Danish shores and promises to rid the countryside of the rampaging beast. But once the creature is thwarted, well, that's when the trouble really begins. Suffice to say that Grendel has some close relatives who don't take too kindly to his defeat. Thus begins a cyclical tale of power and corruption that's pretty damn fascinating. I mean, the epic poem hasn't survived for 1,300 years for no reason.
You want to just sit back and enjoy a pulpy adventure movie? Beowulf works best in that capacity, but this is coming from a guy who owns Legend, Krull and The Sword and the Sorcerer, so clearly I'm kind of a sucker for the genre. Lead (voice) actor Ray Winstone provides a gravelly gravity to the titular hero, and he's more than capably flanked by Brendan Gleeson as the loyal warrior Wiglaf. John Malkovich skulks around the background, adding a little color, and Crispin Glover is chillingly effective as the tortured Grendel. Much ink will be spilled over the virtual performance of the (virtually) naked Angelina Jolie, and while the "creation" is certainly alluring, I found her presence to be one of the flick's more nagging (if relatively minor) distractions. (Most of the actors, even Anthony Hopkins as a garrulous king, manage to sink into the characters, but Jolie simply stands out as ... Jolie.)
Sure, one can nitpick the finer details until the cows come home, but the beauty of Beowulf is that Zemeckis and company were compelled to create a big-time, big-movie spectacle -- and on that scale they've succeeded quite powerfully. The film maintains a wonderful "dark storybook" vibe that carries a viewer through the 'rough spots' with very little trouble, and I could spend a few meaty paragraphs detailing the sheer awesomeness of the action sequences. (Short version: They're amazing.) Also, the pounding Alan Silvestri score is the composer's best work in years.
Best of all, this adaptation brings some sense and accessibility to an epic story that, frankly, most people know very little about. That's not to say it's a precisely faithful adaptation (because it's not), but the movie stands as an unapologetically enthusiastic marriage between old-school heroism and modern-day wizardry.
Plus it kicks ass!