'Beowulf' an epic exercise in silliness

Posted: November 16, 2007

A Looney Tunes 300, Robert Zemeckis' multi-format adaptation (3-D or not 3-D? Imax or not Imax? - these are the questions) of the crusty Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf offers buxom serving wenches, swarthy warriors and the unwittingly hilarious sight of its hero - the great Geat soldier, Beowulf - in a naked wrestling match with the slimy, wailing, 20-foot monster, Grendel.

In order to keep its PG-13 rating intact - and not to offend the delicate sensibilities of teenage gamer Geats, I mean geeks - the film provides a big sword, or a beam, or a helmet, or a passing tray of mead, to obscure our vaulting, somersaulting, unclad hero's private parts.

Imagine if David Cronenberg had done that with Viggo Mortensen in the rightly famous bathhouse fight scene of Eastern Promises. Or if the director had asked Viggo to wear a towel.

Mortensen comes to mind not just because he had the actorly chops to let it all hang out in Eastern Promises, but because, of course, he was Aragorn, son of Arathorn, in The Lord of the Rings. Said saga would not exist if its author, J.R.R. Tolkien, hadn't spent years at Oxford poring over manuscripts of the eighth-century tale, with its dragons and demons, its bedeviled monarchs and tempted heroes, that had come to be known as Beowulf.

But we digress.

Let's talk about Angelina Jolie, sheathed only in spray-on gold, with a wicked serpent's tail and stiletto heels built into her feet. Yes, she is Grendel's Mother - hot mama! - the malevolent matriarch who dwells in the cave with her oozy, unhappy, monster-boy. That is, until this Geat from across the seas takes it upon himself to tear the kid limb from limb. And Grendel's Mother feels compelled to leave her lair to exact vengeance, and get Beowulf in a lusty sweat, to boot.

Zemeckis, who blazed trails mixing live-action with animation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, blazes not even a footpath here. (Unless you consider making a movie that matches dead-on the images in the accompanying video game some kind of trail-blazing.) Deploying the same motion-capture processes he used in The Polar Express, Zemeckis brought the likes of Jolie - and Ray Winstone (as Beowulf), Anthony Hopkins (the Danish king), Robin Wright Penn (the queen), John Malkovich (Unferth, the king's sniveling counsel) and various other esteemed thespians - into a studio. He filmed them, recorded their voices, and then sent them on their fat-paycheck way. Next step: dispatching crews of computer animators to paint on the costumes, props, caverns, castlescapes, and stormy skies. And, more importantly, to render the likenesses of the human cast into digital doppelgangers - blank-eyed, pixel-faced, creepy.

And, creepily distracting.

Not that there's much of anything beyond the combat scenes, the swooping aerials, the comin'-at-ya! projectiles (if you've got those 3-D glasses) to keep you occupied. There is some masterful prose - "I am Beowulf and I'm here to kill your monster" is representative of the most subtlely turned dialogue. And there is Grendel's Mother, shaking her booty, stiletto appendages and all.

Beowulf ** (out of four stars)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis. With the voices and digital likenesses of Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Ray Winstone and Robin Wright Penn. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 55 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, nudity, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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