Beowulf succeeds on several levels. It retells a well-known epic and gives it a different dimension. It’s also a technological marvel, setting a standard for computer animation. But one still gets the feeling that it isn’t all right.
The movie is based on the Anglo-Saxon epic poem of the same name. It is one of the most famous stories ever told, and the oldest known English story in existence. It’s the tale of the warrior Beowulf, who defends a kingdom against the monster Grendel and Grendel’s mother. This film takes the basic story and makes a few changes. If you’re familiar with the story, the outline remains mostly the same, but the film introduces some concepts that dramatically affect the themes of the story and the characterization of the hero.
These changes mostly work, ultimately making Beowulf a more complex character than your run-of-the-mill invincible warrior hero. It doesn’t feel quite as epic as its source material, but that might be a good thing. The script does a pretty good job at balancing a sense of literary rootedness with a modicum of modern thinking. The dialogue may be classic, but it isn’t crusty, and the themes feel deeper and more human.
However, one can’t shake the feeling while watching Beowulf that something feels just a little bit off. There is a concept in robotics known as the “Uncanny Valley,” and it might be a term that you might hear more often as people discuss this movie. It’s basically the discomfort people feel when presented with extremely realistic depictions of humans. It originally referred to robots, but it applies as well to computer animation. As things get more realistic, the faker it actually seems. In the film, this creates a sort of detachment from the audience, like a perceptual barrier preventing the film from being as visceral as it should be. While the action scenes are impressive, this barrier can really soften the tension.
There’s no denying that the film is gorgeous. One certainly has to admire the technology behind the film, but one has to question whether it was all necessary. Did we really need Grendel’s mother to look exactly like Angelina Jolie? Did it really help tell the story, or was it just distracting? The answers will vary from person to person, but this reviewer feels that it just could’ve been done simpler, or more stylized, and it would’ve been more effective that way. As it is, it feels like the technology actually detracts from the storytelling, which should really be at the forefront.
Overall though, the film still works. The classic story really holds up, and the embellishments made by this movie make it richer. It’s just the Uncanny Valley that’s bogging this film down. If you can ignore that, then you’re all good to go.