The epic story of “Beowulf” begins in Denmark in A.D. 507. Hoisted up as royalty, King Hrothgar joins a celebratory crowd of Danish townspeople on the mead hall. There are dancing, singing, liquor-guzzling and meat-gnawing. On the wayside, the beautiful Queen, not quite in a party mood, quietly frowns on of her husband’s gluttonous lifestyle of sex, food, and wine. The king seems to have everything he dreams of, although he has one existing nightmare: Grendel, the party crasher.

Probably twice huge as a huge man, Grendel is a skinless monster whose muscles and guts are showing. Even though he lives miles away, the monster has very sensitive hearing. Any noise of merrymaking turns him into a cranky old man. Instead of prodding the ceiling with a broomstick, he breaks up the party by crashing the reception, creating havoc, and ripping people apart. The giant seems invincible, until the titular hero arrives. Beowulf, a rugged man’s man and a woman’s sexy beefcake, is out for blood and glory. If he ever kills the monstrous party crasher, he’s bound to be sung in songs. Party on!

I guess Robert Zemeckis is sticking to making “motion capture” animation. After “The Polar Express,” the computer graphics has improved; it really gets close to reality. Zemeckis pulls out a bunch of oh-look-what-I-can-do tricks; he frames and shoots his movie that would be impossible to do with a regular camera. Prepare your eyes to open in ohhs-and-ahhs dazzlement. I guess your eyes would widen 33.33% more if you’re seeing it in 3D. For some people, the movie’s eye candy would be enough to savor. Indeed, the technical workmanship is impressive, but I thought it calls attention to itself too much.

There’s a line between advancing technology and treating it as a toy. Zemeckis seems to be playing here, perhaps coasting; special effects let him off the hook too easily. It is also questionable if he really envisioned the movie as an animation, because “Beowulf” seems like something that could be shot with real actors. In fact, some of the actors closely resemble their movie counterparts. Is Zemeckis using animation as an easy way out? Can you imagine “Forrest Gump” or “Back to the Future” with the same treatment? I hope this is not the future of cinema. Will the un-animated movies be perceived as antiquated as the way black and white films are perceived now?

It’s a good thing the story was really good. I give my kudos to screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary for the adaptation. I haven’t read the epic poem (not that I intend to) but the basic structure of the legend is a sturdy one. Themes are nicely layered atop each other and the major players are hauntingly woven into the story. The moral center, not the type to hit movies these days, is surprisingly soul-deep. People, gearing for a rah-rah fantasy, might be too wimpy to face “Beowulf” as a cautionary tale of human fallibility. It’s a legend that warns the danger of “having it all,” which is the essence of fantasy itself. We are so accustomed to seeing protagonists dreaming big and achieving it, but we rarely realize that there could be failure in success. It’s hard to pinpoint as to what evil we can be seduced into, as it varies from person to person. “Beowulf” however perfectly personifies the villain, in the sexy shape of a beauty. There’s nothing more distracting or arresting than a breathtaking spectacle. That’s why movies get away with hideous storytelling, as long as they are good-looking. Luckily, “Beowulf” is handsome on both counts.

Grade: B+

Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Crispin Glover, John Malkovich, Robin Wright Penn, Brendan Gleeson, Alison Lohman, and Angelina Jolie
Screenplay by
Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary
Directed by
Robert Zemeckis
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sexual material and nudity