I don’t know why they chose this title. It’s really the story of a poor, abused young man and his mother. We don’t get a lot of his back story, but from appearances he was horribly burned at some point. He seems to be profoundly retarded. He has no genitals, and not much is left of his face. His body is twisted, whether from deformity or mutilation it’s hard to say. (I wouldn’t be surprised if he was brutally beaten, possibly by his classmates, for his ugliness. You know Vikings, not a race noted for gentleness and compassion.) He lives in a cave with his devoted mom, and they both mind their own business.
A rowdy group of drunken slobs moves in not far away, led by a loutish “king” who wanders about wearing nothing but a sheet. You’ll be reminded of the Hell’s Angels. The king and his gang and their sluts spend most of their time roistering in a big pigsty—a “mead hall”—they’ve built especially for the purpose of getting swacked out of their minds every night. I don’t know what’s in this “mead,” but it makes them want to sing a lot, and play their electric lyres very loudly. One night around 3 AM the boy, Grendel, has had enough. He goes down the mountain and kills most of them. (Did I say Grendel is a mighty big boy?) He takes one home to eat and, sweetly, to share with his mom. Any apartment dweller banging on his ceiling in the wee hours will understand Grendel’s actions perfectly, and completely forgive him. I mean, haven’t we all killed, dismembered, and eaten an inconsiderate neighbor or two now and then? Where’s the harm?
The king and his surviving thugs are a little subdued after that, cowards that they are, but they quietly put out on a contract on Grendel. This brings hired-gun and big-time braggart and blowhard Beowulf to town with more thugs. They lure Grendel down from the mountain with more roistering, and after Grendel has worn himself out slaughtering the big hero’s hapless men—where was Beowulf? Uh, maybe he had “other priorities”—Beowulf meets him in single combat … stark naked. Poor Grendel, confronted with the sight of the Mighty Nordic Member that he lacks, is so flustered he is thrown off his stride, and Beowulf pulls off his arm and sends him fleeing into the night, where he dies in the arms of his heartbroken mother. Then Beowulf decides to kill the grieving mother, fuck the king’s wife, and drive the king to suicide …
All of the above aside, I actually enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would. Robert Zemeckis has apparently decided he never wants to work with an actual camera again, as this and his last movie, The Polar Express, and his next, an All-Jim-Carrey (Scrooge and all the ghosts) all-green-screen motion-capture-suit rendering of A Christmas Carol are, or will be, entirely generated in computers. There are certain advantages to this (no props, no sets), but it still ain’t cheap. This one cost $150,000,000. For all that money, some of the CGI shots were surprisingly unconvincing. I’d call them uneven. Some were so damn good you forgot you were looking at animation, others made you think of Shrek and Fiona. Horses, for one thing, are still a problem. They don’t gallop right. But all in all, it is a visual feast. Every so often I was reminded that there is a 3D version of this film, when a character pointed a spear or threw something in my face. In the end, that’s really all 3D’s good for, isn’t it?
What was unexpected was that I liked the story. Beowulf really is an asshole, at the beginning. Most of his dialogue consists of bellowing “I am Beowulf!” Okay, we got it, jeez, can’t you shut up about yourself for one minute? But after he’s seduced by a deliciously CGI-naked Angelina Jolie (with a prehensile pigtail!) a little over halfway through, we get the rest of the story, sort of like Stephen Sondheim did with the after “happily-ever-after” second act of Into the Woods. He’s been an effective king, slaughtering and enslaving and raping and pillaging like a good Viking, but he’s unsatisfied. He’s hung with this image he knows he doesn’t deserve, what with failing to kill Grendel’s mother and having a curse on him and all, and he’s got one Big Nordic Case of Angst. I was supposed to have read the epic poem in high school, but like so many, I blew it off, or have completely forgotten it. In the back of my mind I thought heroes were supposed to slay the monster and then everything’s swell. Here, the best parts of the movie are after Grendel is dead.
I can’t end this without saying something about Beowulf’s Mighty Nordic Member. We don’t see it, of course, as the producers want to show it to kids. (The movie, not the Member.) (And we know it’s Big; the queen’s CGI eyes widen and elegantly shout “hubba hubba!” when they stare down at it.) And Zemeckis shows considerable wit in how he carefully fig-leafs Our Hero and His Hero in shot after shot. He’s naked for maybe 15 minutes of screen time, and not all of it is with his back to the camera. And I realized that, with green-screen and body suits, everything being recorded in computer memory as nothing but spatial relationships which can be manipulated in post-production, no actual film, no actual camera, this sort of thing is dead easy. The same process that enables great swooping “camera” moves makes it easy to select the right angle to never show the Danish Dingus. Will wonders never cease?