On Saturday, I had the privilege in watching the next phase in filmmaking, when I attended a screening of Beowulf.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, it’s a song told of the hero Beowulf, a Geet warrior come to Denmark to rid the land and its king of Grendel, a horrific and tormented monster. Beowulf’s legend is as big as his ego, but as Babe Ruth said, “it ain’t bragging if you can do it.” And Beowulf can most definitely do it. For Beowulf though, the curse of Grendel reaches far deeper than anyone knows, a curse that threatens to consume his very soul and that of Denmark.

Although this tale has been told for centuries, I will leave the rest of the particulars to your viewing pleasure. And this film is sheer viewing pleasure.

First off, the acting. And although this film is done through animated motion capture CGI (think Gollum from Lord of the Rings), believe me when I tell you that the actors performed every bit of what you see on screen. First off is the title character himself, Ray Winstone as Beowulf. He brings a fierceness to the character that is of course necessary for such a larger than life figure, yet he portrays Beowulf’s false bravado and insecurities with amazing finesse. He comes to aid King Hrothgar, portrayed by Anthony Hopkins. Hrothgar is the stereotypical King asleep at the wheel, too drunk and too foolish to see his kingdom stands on the edge of disaster; all the while it drinks itself to death. Robin Wright Penn plays his queen Wealthow, a young beautiful woman, devoted to her king, but revulsed by his past. Crispin Glover voices Grendel, a misshapen, tortured beast who must destroy all that hurts him. Finally, Angelina Jolie plays Grendel’s mother, a mythical creature, beautiful yet terrifying. All do a great job here.

Next, the story. Zemeckis culls just the right amount of material from the legend, with changes a bit here and there. The alterations do well to make “Beowulf” more of a personal tale, balancing the action and violence (of which there is plenty). Zemeckis’ Beowulf is a tragic hero, full of bravado and tall tales, but inwardly inadequate and unsatisfied. As his stature as a legend grows, his emptiness grows as well (almost like a balloon inflated to bursting). He knows no other way, though. He must succeed, no matter what the cost. When he dispatches Grendel, his mother offers Beowulf a choice. Give in to her and be a hero forever, or pass out of knowledge and memory from her wrath. Herein lies the quintessential idea behind the film; what is the cost of being hero, both for the hero himself and for the society that champions him? Is it worth risking tragedy and mayhem in order to have something or someone to celebrate? In the end, it is not Beowulf who must decide, but all of those who believe in him.

Lastly, the special effects. I did not see Zemeckis’ holiday film “The Polar Express”, but I saw enough clips to marvel at the level of complexity CGI realism had. CGI has been around for more than a decade thanks to Pixar, but almost always as an extension of the cartoon world (Toy Story, Incredibles). Here, “Beowulf” strives to be as realistic as possible. The facial expressions are truly amazing. I often had to stop myself from believing that these weren’t the real actors performing live. Angelina Jolie’s first appearance on screen is SO real looking, I had to convince myself that it was still CGI. Anthony Hopkins gets the most subtlety out of his character, a tribute to the screen legend’s talent.

“Beowulf” is the first mainstream CGI film to be truly targeted for adults. The level of complexity and nuance opens a lot of doors towards making similar films in this genre. Interestingly enough, I found myself more willing to be sucked into this fantasy world than that of live action (Lord of the Rings included). This isn’t to say it’s a better movie, or better acted. The CGI simply wills itself to be more engrossing in its fantasy. It’s a remarkable achievement, and a very worthwhile film.

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