Keep a memory of me, not as a king or a hero, but as a man: fallible and flawed.
Based on the Old English epic poem, Beowulf follows the tale of a great warrior who fights terrifying beasts in a path that would lead him to become king. However, as the film progress, we learn that Beowulf’s nature may not be as sincere as he lets on.
One of the most interesting things about this film is how it chooses to interpret the poem. Without going too deep into spoilers for the uninitiated, the poem, while extremely important to understanding Old English literature, made for a rather simple narrative. Not that it’s inherently flawed in regards to how it functions as a poem, but when translating to film, Director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery went for a more deconstructive approach. By cleverly choosing to frame the story as fiction vs. reality, Beowulf is not only a very entertaining piece of fantasy action but a surprisingly reflective tale of regret.
Take our title character, for instance. By all accounts, as we see in the film, Beowulf himself seems to be a warrior like no other. Capable of pulling off great feats that would be seen as unachievable to all but a few. For more or less, he has every right to call himself the greatest warrior who has ever lived. But for him, it can’t be just that. No, it can’t just that. As shown in the film, he tends to boast himself to come off as greater than he already is. But that comes with consequences. Consequences that will come to haunt him for the rest of his life.
You can look at this film compared to the poem and see the film as the “real” account for what actually happened, while the poem is the story that ends up being told to the world. But in Beowulf’s view, spreading some of those stories the equivalent to telling a lie. And few people that know the truth might as well be living in a different form of reality incomprehensible to everyone else.
It’s for that reason that Beowulf, as the man, makes for a really entertaining lead. He’s someone whose so self-confident in his abilities that seemingly nothing can inspire the tiniest bit of fear out of him. And this aura he holds around himself makes it’s straightforward to believe that anyone who takes just one look at him could instantly consider him someone of great status and follow him into battle. At the same time, however, he’s also capable of self-reflection. Knowing that maybe he’s crossed a line that he should have avoided. He’s a very balanced character, and anytime he faces a terrible beast is nothing short of a joy to watch.
Aside from its source material, one of the film’s major selling points is that it features human characters animated using live-action motion capture animation. Beowulf does come from the likes of ImageMovers, who were also responsible for other films like the Polar Express, Monster House, and the very infamous Mars Needs Moms, which employed motion-capture animation. A major criticism shared regarding those films is that the characters can look a bit too real to the point they become uncanny. When judging how this film uses, I think it, for the most part, works. There might be a few instances where characters might look a bit too dead, but more than not, the motion-capture looks really solid, if not fantastic, in a few places.
Most of the credit for its success comes from the film’s talented cast. Everyone onboard, from Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright, Brendan Gleeson, John Malkovich, Crispin Glover, Alison Lohman, and Angelina Jolie, give each of these characters so much in personality that the characters come off as expressive and lively. Enough to at least make them feel like real people at the very least. In particular, the title character, Ray Winstone, lends the right amount of hubris and introspection that makes Beowulf such a fun and compelling character to watch.
A major benefit to the motion-capture for the animation is the lack of limitations that traditionally a live-action production would have to work around. Animation supervisor Kenn MacDonald stated Zemeckis wanted to use motion-capture because they wouldn’t have to worry about certain aspects of film making such as lighting and letting the actors let loose since they didn’t have to worry about where the camera is going to be. And this really shows when the action starts to ramp up. The camerawork is very dynamic that constantly keeps moving with the characters. At the same time, though, it’s never too messy to the point; it becomes too hard to follow. You can tell that Zemeckis had many fun ideas in how he wanted to frame the action, and it pays off very nicely.
Visually, Beowulf still holds up remarkably for a film that came out in 2007. Great use of lighting makes for a lot of cool imagery and makes the characters feel like people and not puppets walking around a computer-generated set. The musical score by Alan Silvestri is as grand as expected from a fantasy epic such as this, with nice use of Nordic chants that compliments the film.
For people who like reading through the poem, your enjoyment of this interpretation of Beowulf will depend on this one question. Can you accept the narrative choices taken with its source material even if it changes the context of why certain events happen significantly? If the answer is no, then you’re not going to like this film very much for that reason. For everyone else to the contrary and those who haven’t read or cared for the poem, then you’ve got a very well-made and entertaining action fantasy film on your hands.
Even having seen the film twice, I’m still very much enjoyed the direction this film took with its story. For a film where big buff men and monsters scream their lungs off while in glorious combat, there’s still a level of thematic depth that adds some real nuance to everything that happens. Just a good, well-rounded popcorn flick all around.