Adapted from the epic poem that has puzzled a great many students in its time, Beowulf is now lighting up cinema screens with its eclectic mix of humour, violence and grandeur. Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins and Ray Winstone head up this impressive cast in a three-dimensional roller coaster of gargantuan proportions.
King Hrothgar (Hopkins) is plagued by the repeated appearance of a terrible and vicious monster, Grendel (Crispin Glover). In desperate need of a hero, he summons Beowulf, a gruff and slightly cockney Ray Winstone. In a world of lust and legend, Beowulf defeats one monster, only to realise that, in true anti-feminist style, behind every great man there is a great woman. In this case Angelina Jolie, playing the nameless Grendel’s mother, a seductive powerhouse who lurks forever in Beowulf’s psyche.
Beowulf is no flawless hero; he's more animal than man, who talks in grunts and growls, and has a strong ignoble streak when it comes to lying about his prowess, or whenever women are involved. It's this last point that drives most of the plot, and the women in the film are all layered with complexity. Even Angelina Jolie’s devil-character, despite moving about as close to pure evil in stiletto-heels as a contemporary audience could tolerate, has empathetic overtones that leave a sweet aftertaste.
In adapting the original text, screenwriters Neil Gaiman (Stardust) and Roger Avary has kept all the raw sexuality and violence intact - so be warned, the certificate seems to have been plucked from thin air and parents mistakenly in search of a cultural experience may be in for a shock. There's a lot of near-nudity: Jolie covered in a sheen of glossy mud and Ray Winstone wrestling stark naked, with his manhood covered to great comic effect in by a variety of different objects for almost ten minutes. Meanwhile, staying true to - and clearly relishing - the historical setting, director Zemeckis has thrown in a series of bawdy interludes.
Beowulf aims for a balance between intellectual prowess and Hollywood entertainment - and it neatly references its own status as an adaptation of the text, providing "the truth behind the song" - but after a while the endless twists and turns around a similar theme begin to pall. Monsters, dragons, fighting, gore and blood don’t sustain two hours worth of attention on their own so prepare for a seat-shifting half-hour towards the end as things lumber to an inevitable climax.
Where the film really shines is the quality of the animation, which is expressive and flawless. The snow-drenched scenery is crisp and glossy, the water warps and ripples, the beards provide endless fascinated viewing. The rendering process that has transformed actors into their digital counterparts (a technique pioneered Zemeckis in The Polar Express) is exquisite, if a little spooky. And all this spectacle is quadrupled in the Imax 3D version, which provides plenty of gasp-out-loud moments as daggers, spears and dragons fly past amazed faces.
However, the story and characters just aren’t as rich as the pixels themselves. As fantasy-adventure goes, it's tight and to the point, with a small cast of characters and a streak of humour based around its feckless hero. But if bombast and dragons isn't your thing (and two characters talking in Old English isn't close enough to the original for you) then it's unlikely to linger long in the memory.