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Beowulf’ not just visual butter

By Sam Potter

“Beowulf”Paramount PicturesDirected by Robert Zemeckis

Starring Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn, John Malkovich, Angelina Jolie and Crispin Hellion Glover

Rated PG-13/113 minutesThree-and-a-half out of four stars

With fantasy stories once again accepted as a legitimate genre, what better story to be translated into film than the archetypical epic poem “Beowulf?” With its stoic and superhumanly-gifted hero and one of the most tragic monsters in the history of literature, it seems ripe for the grandiose, CGI realism that modern cinematic storytelling now provides.

It also seems ripe for disaster. As clichéd as it is to apply the trademark tidbit of wisdom Uncle Ben gave to Peter Parker, it fits: With great technology comes an even greater responsibility to make sure the story doesn’t suck. With the deluge of CGI-heavy and story-lite family films being churned out lately (Disney, anyone?), “Beowulf” could easily have been bloated and overstuffed in an attempt to “modernize” the tale.

Fortunately, veteran director Robert Zemeckis understood that in “Beowulf,” story is king. Though his film is chock-full of lavish 3-D visuals, sweeping medieval landscapes and unbelievable battle sequences, the script penned by Roger Avary (“American Psycho”) and Neil Gaiman (“Mirror Mask,” “Stardust”) has a powerful emotional and moral core that carries an important warning of the dangers of power, strength, celebrity and conceit.

For anyone who slept through most of European literature in high school or college, here’s a quick primer: “Beowulf” is an epic, heroic poem written around A.D. 700 by an unknown author. The poem’s story, themes and structure are believed to have been created from the passing down of the poem via oral tradition. The cinematic rendition is pretty much spot on: the kingdom of the drinking and womanizing King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) is being terrorized by Grendel (Crispin Hellion Glover), a hulking, slimy giant whose über-sensitive eardrums are plagued by the townspeople’s incessant partying. After making mincemeat out of a large number of the townsfolk, Hrothgar seeks out a hero to rid them of the not-so-jolly giant. And who should wash ashore but the strikingly handsome Beowulf (Ray Winstone), a blonde haired and blue-eyed glory seeker who vows to vanquish the monster. Beowulf also has his eye on Hrothgar’s beautiful Queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn), whom Hrothgar swears he will gladly give to Beowulf should he accomplish his mission.

After a difficult battle, Beowulf sends the wounded Grendel crying home to his mother (Angelina Jolie) who watches him die in her arms. Enraged, Grendel’s mother sets out for revenge and terrorizes the town. When Beowulf returns to settle the score, he’s in for a challenge that he didn’t expect-one that will test his heart and moral fiber, rather than his strength or skill with the sword.

I was instantly swept away with the uncanny realism of the film. Like Zemeckis’ “The Polar Express,” “Beowulf” was filmed using real actors and finished digitally with characters that look like their real-life counterparts. The battle sequences are breathtaking and harrowing. Like the graphic descriptions in the actual poem, the battles are extremely violent and bloody, and Grendel has to be one of the greatest freak-out villains in recent memory-both pathetic and frightening, enraging and sad.

Zemeckis does a great job not rendering all moral elements black and white in this film. The villains are not entirely evil, the heroes are not inherently good. One questions whether the real monsters in the story are the men or the demons. When Beowulf enters the den of Grendel’s mother, he finds that she is not a slobbering demon at all, but the epitome of a sexy, lustful woman.

“Give me a son, and I will make you the greatest king in history,” she begs him. “Your song will be sung forever.”

Beowulf brings a golden horn with him that Queen Wealthow gave him. Grendel’s mother states that, as long as the horn stays in her possession, Beowulf will rule forever.

When Beowulf returns and claims to have slain the mother, the people rejoice-but Hrothgar knows better. He asks Beowulf if he truly did slay the mother, and when Beowulf can’t give him a straight answer, Hrothgar concedes, “All I care is that Grendel is slain. As to the mother, she’s not MY curse. Not anymore.”

“Beowulf” is a film for the ages. Though it probably won’t inspire a legion of fanboys as “Lord of the Rings” or “Star Wars” did, it contains a potent message regarding the dangers of the lust for power and glory. Also, remember, “Beowulf” was the inspiration for both Tolkien’s and Lucas’ stories and came well before either. This is where it all started.

Sharply written, immaculately assembled and beautifully acted, it’s an intelligent holiday treat for those who prefer their popcorn movies with more than just gobs of visual butter.

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