Robert Zemeckis’ “Beowulf” is so rousingly entertaining that you’ll feel guilty for not reading the epic poem all the way through when you were in ninth grade. But future generations of students shouldn’t look to this stirring motion-capture animation version to help them get through their Origins of Literature final — screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary have taken broad liberties with the ancient text, although their departures translate to the screen quite well for the most part.
Once again we begin with the prosperous King Hrothgar (voice and digitally captured face and body of Anthony Hopkins) opening up the grand hall Heorot, where there is much drinking of mead, singing, dancing, and general carrying-on. Unfortunately, Hrothgar and his people have history’s grumpiest neighbor — the monster Grendel (Crispin Glover). Rather than just pound on the ceiling or call the landlord, the hideous Grendel — part human, part lizard, part anatomy-class demonstration — takes matters into his own hands, swooping into the hall and eating many of Hrothgar’s men.
After this party-pooping, the hall’s doors are bolted until the warrior Beowulf (Ray Winstone) breezes into town, demanding that the mead be poured and promising to take care of the Grendel situation. He strips down for the fight — although, American movies being what they are, his genitals are constantly hidden by candles and sword hilts, a distracting measure that unfortunately calls to mind a recurring gag in the “Austin Powers” movies — and makes quick work of the beast, yanking off his arm.
Beowulf next heads off to Grendel’s lair to kill the creature’s fearsome mother (Angelina Jolie), but she, in a departure from the original text, instead makes Beowulf an offer he can’t refuse.
While the story moves into different directions at this point, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that Beowulf becomes the new king and, in his autumn years, must confront yet another monster attacking his kingdom. And while Hollywood has a mixed-at-best record when it comes to movies about dragons, Beowulf’s final encounter with a fire-breathing beastie is one of the most breathtakingly exciting action sequences in recent memory, taking full advantage of the liberation that animation offers to filmmakers.
Which is not to say that motion-capture has completely come of age. If you saw Zemeckis’ tedious “The Polar Express,” you’ll be thrilled to know that the characters here don’t have that creepy dead-eye thing that afflicted everyone in that previous movie.
The characters played by Hopkins and Winstone here look incredibly life-like (although Winstone, of course, has been outfitted with a torso that could get work in gay porn), down to each facial hair. The lead women, alas — including Robin Wright Penn and Alison Lohman — are left looking a little puffy and doll-like by the technology. Worse still, minor characters who didn’t get the post-production TLC that the leads did look stunningly artificial, like characters in a Greatest Heroes of the Bible diorama.
Nonetheless, “Beowulf” represents a quantum leap in a medium that could very well become a major force in mainstream filmmaking. And on its own terms, it’s a lusty and exhilarating piece of work.