Has there ever been a schoolboy who, on being forced to read a translation of "Beowulf," didn't get a charge out of the fact that its most fearsome monster by far isn't Grendel, the demon with the mark of Cain who slays Danish nobles 30 at a time, but his mother, who avenges her dismembered son the next night?
Well, Robert Zemeckis and his ingenious screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, have a surprise for us in the first big-screen, major-star version of "Beowulf" we've ever had: Grendel's Mum -- the "mighty woman of the Lake," more cruel, terrible and atrocious than her slaughtering boy -- isn't beheaded with a magic sword on her night of vengeance but is, in fact, Angelina Jolie, whose animated body is covered only with sparse and strategic mud-splatters and whose wiles are pretty much what you'd expect, given the, uh, armament.
But what's rather wonderfully original about this 3-D "Beowulf" isn't recasting Grendel's mother -- the monster of monsters in the first vernacular epic in any European language -- as the wicked seductress of the Dark Ages. It's her murdering boy, who slaughters Danish warriors and munches on their corpses from the heads down.
He's 20 feet tall and realized with such profoundly misshappen and monstrous ugliness that he's a triumph of animation. But even that isn't what's so startling about this Grendel. It's that his murder screams, as he charges the men he's about to rend and send to eternity, aren't violent screams of anger and assault but screams of terror. This Grendel kills horrifically out of a crazed and uncontrollable fear.
And he does it in the voice of Crispin Glover, our weirdest actor by far. Say what you want but, by me, that's inspired right there.
Grendel -- you see, as Zemeckis, Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary give him back to us in 3-D -- isn't offended by the constant boastful merriment of the drunken Danes in their mead hall but by the noise of their carousing. It isn't their orgies that bother him in his cave-dwelling monstrousness, but the sound of them. He has very sensitive ears, that boy.
One can only imagine what a Led Zeppelin or a Who concert would have done to him.
I think this new 3-D animated "Beowulf" is just dandy.
The reason that so many of the great schoolboy epics -- "Beowulf," "The Odyssey," "The Iliad," -- weren't filmed before the post-slasher film era is that they're just too savage.
Grendel, after all, is dispatched by the great Geat (Swedish) hero Beowulf when his arm is ripped out of his socket by a deliberately unarmed hero. Back when they might have made this kind of movie in Technicolor with Robert Taylor or Stewart Granger or Kirk Douglas (and Deborah Kerr or Rhonda Fleming), the Hollywood honchos felt it was a lot safer to go with Sir Walter Scott and his progeny. (The exception, of course, was Richard Fleischer's immortally violent "The Vikings" full of arms being lopped off Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas' eye being clawed out by an angry falcon. Fleischer, not surprisingly, was the son of an animator.)
In the post-"Psycho" era, of course, anything goes. The new computer animation means you can do anything. Imagine it, fire up the machines and their keepers and it's on screen.
So this "Beowulf" is pretty cool, 3-D and all. What it does with 3-D is what movies did with 3-D 50 years ago even though the process now is infinitely better, i.e. it throws things at you (spears, axes, knives). And it pulls the camera back slowly to give you lots of dizzying distance between foreground and background.
The process may be better but you still have to wear the bloody glasses. And this particular animation process -- digitally enhanced live action -- means that actors act first on film and are then digitally replaced. The result leaves the eyes of everyone eerily dead. It's as if the whole movie were performed not by animated people but animations of the diorama versions of themselves in a museum.
No matter. Anthony Hopkins is an old reliable as brave, sad King Hrothgar and Ray Winstone is splendid as Beowulf, the insufferable boaster and glory hound who's actually as great as his word.
The other thing, of course, that has always endeared schoolkids about these Swedes and Danes is how much drunken carousing they like to do.
There are lecherous lines here that would, no doubt, baffle the original Beowulf poet from the ninth century (you should read the R-rated versions of them in the published script) but, hey, in our era, we're better with carousing and lechery than nobility. Even so, we're not so good with it that there isn't unintentional comedy in all the foreground frenzy that keeps us from any accidental frontal nudity.
Gaiman and Avary's brand new story wrinkle with Grendel's mother is, if you ask me, awfully clever, all in all. Gaiman is one of our reigning fantasists in these post-Tolkien times and he's pretty good at reimagining Beowulf.
For all the 3-D splendor, "Beowulf" won't blow anyone away but it has some entirely new things to add to the oldest English epic poem that are quite inventive.
Anyone thinking of bringing little ones to this should think again. Life and limb are awfully cheap here -- unless they belong to Angelina Jolie in which case they're sensationally seminude.
3 stars (Out of 4)
The old English epic of heroes and monsters in Robert Zemeckis and Neil Gaiman's animated 3-D version starring Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn, Crispin Glover and John Malkovich. Rated PG-13 for violence and dirty-minded carousing.