Beowulf (Retro Movie Review)


Review by Nathan James Norman

2007 saw the release of the motion-capture computer animated film Beowulf directed by Robert Zemeckis. Along for this adaptation were superstar writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary. Armed with the digital acting abilities of actors Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich and Angelina Jolie, the film looked like it was going to be a hit on all levels.

What I Didn’t Like
·         Hrothgar is a weak-minded, drunk, Bacchus-like character. Unlike the in the poem, he has no sons and no heirs. This simply doesn’t work, though. To be an effective king in Denmark in those times, he needed to have physical strength and mental prowess. This Hrothgar should have been deposed long before the film begins.
·         The Grendel design is more disturbing than monstrous (see comic below).
·         Unferth is portrayed as a Christian and he is an abusive, weak, conniving, and imbecilic man.
·         The film is verbally and visually aggressive against Christianity.
·         Some of the animation (especially of arms and hands) was particularly choppy.
·         The script tries really hard to get the “story behind the story” of the original poem instead of just trying to tell the excellent story that already exists.
·         The script tries to “marry” the third act of the story to the previous parts. In doing so, the historical narrative of the Geats and their ultimate fate at the hands of the Swedes is obliterated.
·         Beowulf chooses to fight Grendel naked. It feels like a bad SNL skit as the camera tries to hide Beowulf’s parts behind various objects (vases, swords, etc.).
·         (Also, in what universe does fighting a monster nude make any sense?)
·         The film is obsessed with nudity while trying to maintain a PG-13 rating.
·         Grendel’s Mother is portrayed as a seductress instead of a monstrous she-demon.
·         The focus of the narrative is on the sexual sin of leaders. This theme overshadows the heroic aspects of the story.

What I Liked
·         Grendel only speaks in Old English. That was cool!
·         Some of the computer animation, even six years later, is amazing!
·         Beowulf’s overall demeanor is spot-on. He’s bombastic, prideful, boastful, and focused on glory-getting!
·         This film has a pretty good pronunciation of “Hrothgar.”
·         The soundtrack is amazing. It is has many energetic elements, but can also become touching and moving at times.

I am conflicted here. On the one hand, I don’t like this film as a Beowulf story at all. It is a deconstructed parody of the original poem. While it portrays the tension between paganism and Christianity, the latter is (illogically) shown to be the weaker of the two worldviews. Furthermore, Beowulf’s heroism is mostly a farce in this story in light of his sexual sins.

But here’s where I’m conflicted. Here’s where I’m torn. Whereas the “Big Idea” of the poem is, “When you have great abilities, you should train others so they will be equipped when you’re gone,” the big idea of this film is, “Avoid sexual sin because it destroys much more than just yourself.

The film actually has a phenomenal message embedded within it! A message our whole culture needs to understand. (Don’t believe me? Just ask any foster parent! Our private, sexual decisions affect the entire culture!)

[Spoiler Alert: It amuses me to no end that the filmmakers brag about how original it was to have Hrothgar father Grendel. I’m pretty sure the Christopher Lambert version beat them out by at least eight years!]

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sexual material, and nudity
Quality: 6.5/10 (I reluctantly liked it)
Relevance: 10/10 (It’s about sexual sin. Who can’t relate to that?)

(This review is part of Beowulf Month over at my personal blog. Head over there for more geekery, theology and thoughts!)


Here's a comic strip I wrote right after I saw the film in 2007.

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