Written anonymously around 700 AD, Beowulf is the oldest and greatest epic in the English language. Despite the fact that its storyline encompasses Viking Scandinavia, the roughly 3000-line poem is the solitary major surviving work of Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry. The story, required reading in most high school and college English literature classes, is the foundation for all our modern hero myths, from King Arthur to Conan the Barbarian.
Robert Zemeckis, the creative genius behind such films as the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Contact, and Cast Away, here uses his charming but flawed The Polar Express as a technical springboard to re-imagine the epic myth of Beowulf for a 21st century audience. The reason filmmakers return to the well of animation time and again is simple: with animation, you are restrained only by your own imagination.
What makes Beowulf the best of both worlds is that it incorporates near photo-realism with animation's visual autonomy. Zemeckis and his team have tackled the hybrid medium in a manner that is surely the vanguard of things to come. To call Beowulf an evolutionary (though flawed) leap forward in cinema may not be too great a compliment.
Like the poem, the film can be divided into roughly three acts. In the first, the monster Grendel (Crispin Glover) is roused from his cave (the outside of which looks like something plucked from the mind of Caspar David Friedrich and the inside of which is vaulted with trusses that look disturbingly like a titanic human ribcage) by the merriment of the drunken lout, King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and his reveling Danes. Grendel attacks the mead hall, slaughtering and devouring his victims. Hrothgar sends out a medieval distress call to which the warrior Beowulf (Ray Winstone) and his band of men respond. After a cataclysmic confrontation with the beast, Beowulf tears Grendel's arm from his torso, leaving the troll to limp back to his cave to die.
In the second act, Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie) seeks vengeance and goes on a devastating bloodletting, butchering all of Beowulf's men. This leads to a confrontation in the monster's cave from which Beowulf returns with yet another tale of struggle and gallant victory. But is our hero telling the whole truth?
In the final act, we jump decades into the future, after Beowulf has become king and taken Hrothgar's young queen, Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn), as his wife. Beowulf presides over a sprawling kingdom that has fallen into lethargy and territorial squabbles. But such issues are forgotten when a massive dragon appears in the skies and sets itself on destroying Beowulf and all he holds dear.
The Beowulf poem does not find its way to screen unmolested. Several alterations have been made. Numerous characters and events have been deleted. But, what is, perhaps, most shocking is not what has been excluded, but what has been added. Screenwriters Roger Avery (Pulp Fiction) and graphic novelist Neil Gaiman (Stardust) examined the legend on a cellular level and decided to address the glaring inconsistencies, disjoined plot points and unreliable narration that have always plagued the work and earned the ire of certain academics. They have created a "unified field theory" that not only draws disparate stories together and elucidates plot holes, but actually contributes to the existing scholarship.