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This isn’t your ancestor’s “Beowulf”

Mark Witte | Monday, November 19, 2007

Shortly before Beowulf rips Grendel’s arm from its socket, the monster begs to know the hero’s name. Beowulf bellows: “My name is strength! And lust! And power! I am Beowulf!” The Old English epic poem has hit the big screens, but with it, director Robert Zemeckis (“The Polar Express,” “Castaway”) brought significant change to the story and characters we once knew.

The movie begins with a celebration in Heorot, the great mead hall of Hrothgar, King of the Danes. Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) is being celebrated in glorious drunken fashion for his war victories. But while gold coins and women fly about the room, Hrothgar’s Queen, Wealtheow (Robin Wright Penn), sits at an uncomfortable distance, rather disgusted by the display.

Before long, the film transitions slowly away from the hall to an eerie mountain cavern where noise of the celebration invades the monster Grendel’s quiet abode. Enraged by the sound of the merriment, Grendel (Crispin Glover) bursts into Heorot, hurls a few Danes against the walls, impales one on a pike and tears a few others in half before coming to an abrupt stop in front Hrothgar. The two share an awkward moment – absent from the original text – before Grendel bounds away. The meaning behind this previously absent confrontation is where Zemeckis’ “Beowulf” begins to differ from the one we know.

In the morning, Hrothgar orders the hall closed. When Unferth (John Malkovich), Hrothgar’s creepy, cowardly counselor, asks if they should pray to the Christ-God for protection from the monster, Hrothgar replies, “God will do nothing for us that we won’t do for ourselves. What we need is a hero!” Enter Beowulf (Ray Winstone).

Before the film ends, Beowulf is called upon three times to save the kingdom: once for the Queen, twice for the King, and three times for glory. But there is more to this version of the story than hand-to-hand combat between monsters and men. Zemeckis raises new questions as to Grendel’s origin, as well as Hrothgar and Beowulf’s enduring military success.

Grendel’s mother (Angelina Jolie) plays a large role in this new vision of Beowulf as a disturbingly beautiful demon temptress.

The movie’s resolution is no doubt tied to that of the original tale, but because of thematic shifts within the movie, the ending will not make you think it should. This isn’t your ancestor’s 8th, 9th, 10th or 11th century Beowulf – well, at least not quite.

Zemeckis’ Beowulf is still as physically strong and super-human as he was 1,000 years ago, but in those 1,000 years, he’s developed a romantic weakness. It’s hard to tell exactly how many women Beowulf falls for in the film, but it’s more than one. Near the end of the tale he asks Wealtheow to remember him as a “man, fallible and flawed.”

Wealtheow differs largely from the original tale. Those changes, however, do not highlight or come as the result of any flaw; they set her apart from the debauchery of the kingdom.

Grendel is probably the film’s tastiest treat. Zemeckis has taken enormous liberties with Grendel’s character, but on the whole, these changes work. Unlike the Grendel of old, this new Grendel has a voice (he even speaks in Old English) and hints of a personality. Though he ultimately has it coming, he elicits a great deal of sympathy. In a sense, the monster’s evils are not the result of his faults. Rather, they are the repercussions of the lecherous revelry of Heorot, whose echoes vibrate exponentially in the poor monster’s head, torturing him with the world’s worst migraine.

Like he did with “The Polar Express,” Zemeckis has created a film with characters lost between the world of animation and live action. At times, the characters feel more real than they look, and during others – notably the battle sequences – they feel the exact opposite.

Regardless of its faults, there is something darkly beautiful about this animation. In a sense, Beowulf is better depicted in this half-animated style, because something more human would cause its characters to lose their magical and spectral appeal. Then again, Zemeckis’ modernizing of the themes may have done just that.

Our hero has changed much from the classic Beowulf. The story has shifted genres and changed plot tensions. “Beowulf” has sold out thematically, and just like its hero, the film pays a price.