Beowulf is a 2007 animated epic film adapted from the Old English heroic epic poem of anonymous authorship, Beowulf. The film is directed by Robert Zemeckis and was created through motion capture, a technique similar to that used by Zemeckis in The Polar Express. The cast includes Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn, Dominic Keating, Alison Lohman, John Malkovich, Crispin Glover, Brendan Gleeson, and Angelina Jolie. It was released in the United States and the UK on November 16, 2007.
While some of the film remains true to the poem Beowulf, the plot (particularly in the second half of the film) deviates significantly from the original, and certain elements were created specifically for the screenplay. Deviations from the original work include portions of the dialogue, the portrayal of King Hrothgar, the perceived hedonism in Heorot, the span of time before Beowulf fights the dragon, Grendel's motive for attacking Heorot, and the relationships between Beowulf and Wealtheow, and Beowulf and Grendel's mother.
This adaptation of Beowulf begins with King Hrothgar celebrating the construction of his new hall, Heorot. The noise of the celebration echoes into Grendel's cave and torments him. In Heorot, the celebration continues until Grendel breaks down the door and kills almost everyone inside. Hrothgar challenges Grendel to fight him as well but the monster vanishes and returns to his cave. Grendel's mother then confronts him about the event, telling him it is a bad idea to mix with humans.
Hrothgar closes Heorot and proclaims that he will give half of his kingdom in gold to any man who can defeat Grendel. Beowulf and his men hear of the task, land on the coast and are met by one of Hrothgar's soldiers who demands to know why he has come. Beowulf responds that he will destroy Grendel for glory and not for gold.
Beowulf meets Hrothgar and convinces him to reopen Heorot to celebrate his intended slaying of Grendel. Beowulf's intention is to draw Grendel back to the hall, knowing that the troll hates the sound of 'merry-making'. During the celebration, Beowulf is challenged by Hrothgar's adviser, Unferth who tells Hrothgar's people a story of how Beowulf once raced a man across the ocean for five days but ultimately lost, showing that he is clearly not a hero. Beowulf then explains that he lost because he was attacked by leviathan-type sea monsters. We then see a flashback of Beowulf fighting the monsters. After he kills two, he is approached by a mermaid who appears as though she wants to embrace him. He drops his knife and we cut back to the hall. Beowulf tells the people that he slew the third but it is assumed by the audience that he did not actually do so. Beowulf then mocks Unferth in retaliation. Unferth draws a knife and Beowulf disarms him. Hrothgar takes Beowulf aside and shows him a golden drinking horn which Beowulf immediately covets. Hrothgar tells him that he will give Beowulf the horn if he defeats the troll and saves the kingdom. Celebrations recommence and once again Grendel is tormented by the noise.
As the people go to bed, Beowulf asks Queen Wealtheow to sing one more song before they prepare for battle. When she finishes, he tells her to leave and undresses, boasting that it would be unfair if he fought Grendel with a weapon and armour as Grendel uses none. Beowulf commands his men to sing as he falls asleep. Moments later, Grendel breaks the door open and attacks Beowulf's men, killing some. During the fight, Beowulf rises and waits for his chance to strike. He discovers Grendel's weakspot, a throbbing red lump where his ear should be and repeatedly punches it with his bare fist. Eventually Grendel attempts to escape but Beowulf traps him with chains. Grendel manages to get outside the hall but his arm is still stuck in the doorway. Beowulf smashes the door against Grendel's arm and eventually severs it while exclaiming "I am Beowulf!"
Meanwhile, Hrothgar glad to hear the news, tells Wealtheow that he needs an heir. Wealtheow states that she cannot share a bed with him knowing that he once had an affair with Grendel's mother. Hrothgar mentions that he regrets having revealed it to her.
Beowulf is proclaimed a hero and Grendel's arm is nailed above the door of Heorot.
Grendel returns to his cave and collapses in his mother's arms. Before dying, he tells her that Beowulf was the man who has defeated him.
The people celebrate. During the night, Grendel's mother comes to Heorot herself and kills all of Beowulf's men except for Wigglaf, Beowulf's closest friend, who rode off on a horse after witnessing Grendel's massacre. Beowulf wakes up and sees that all of his men in the hall have been slaughtered and hung from the beams of the roof. He confronts Hrothgar who confesses his own past with Grendel's mother (that Grendel is his son) and tells Beowulf where to find her. Unferth enters to apologize to Beowulf, claiming that the man he had previously mocked truly is a hero and champion of the Danes. He then proceeds to give Beowulf his ancestral sword, Hrunting. Beowulf awkwardly accepts, forgives Unferth and leaves with Wigglaf to slay Grendel's mother.
Beowulf and Wigglaf find the cave, he goes inside alone and eventually confronts Grendel's mother. She appears to him as a naked beautiful woman who beckons him. He attempts to slice her with his sword but she evaporates. He is ultimately seduced by her with the promise of fame and power if he gives her a son to compensate for her loss. She then melts Hrunting in his hands and says that she will keep the Horn of Hrothgar to seal the bargain.
Beowulf returns to Heorot and presents to Hrothgar the head of Grendel. Beowulf tells the people Grendel's mother is dead and they rejoice. Hrothgar, however discerns what has passed between Beowulf and Grendel's mother and tells Beowulf in secret that the curse has been passed to him now. He tells his people that Beowulf shall be his new heir since he has no son of his own. He then jumps from a balcony into the sea where his body is claimed by Grendel's mother. Beowulf is then crowned King by Unferth.
Many years pass. We see a much older King Beowulf in battle and ruling over his new kingdom. His men slaughter their enemy and are about to execute the last survivor, who calls Beowulf a coward for now killing the man himself. Beowulf challenges the man to a duel proclaiming that no one will remember his name if he fails to kill Beowulf. Beowulf forces an axe into the man's hand and yells at him to attack. The man cannot and Beowulf tells him he cannot kill him because "I died many years ago, when I was young" referring to the deal he made with Grendel's mother. He then releases the man and returns home.
At Heorot, they discover that Unferth's servant has recovered the Horn of Hrothgar in the moors near Grendel's mother's lair. Beowulf then has a dream in which he encounters a golden skinned man in the middle of Grendel's cave who calls him father. The man then tells Beowulf that he will kill his father's queen as well as his mistress. Beowulf wakes up as a dragon attacks a church. Unferth, now a Christian priest there, is spared in order to tell Beowulf that, "The sins of the father will doom us all."
Beowulf dons his armor and rides to the cave of Grendel's mother with Wigglaf. He confronts her, throws back the horn of Hrothgar and demands that she stay away from his people. Grendel's mother replies that it is too late and the dragon attacks him. They battle in the air and in the sea. Finally they arrive at Beowulf's castle where the dragon is attempting to kill the two women Beowulf holds dear(and who have replaced Grendel's mother in the dragon's eyes), Wealtheow and a younger servant who has become his mistress. At this point, Beowulf has wrapped a chain around the dragon's neck which is attached to his arm. He sees the dragon's soft spot and attempts to attack it. He cannot reach it with his arm attached to the chain so he takes his sword and amputates himself while staying attached to the chain via his armor. He then manages to rip out the dragon's heart with his bare hands. The dragon falls to the beach far below with Beowulf. The shape of the dragon vanishes to reveal Beowulf's son by Grendel's mother, dead. Wigglaf attempts to carry his friend away but Beowulf urges him to stop. As he takes his last breath, Beowulf tells Wigglaf that he must be king and protect his people.
Beowulf's corpse is later placed in a boat with his treasures and cremated as the people watch. As the boat burns in the sea, Wiglaf sees Grendel's mother claim the body. She gazes up at him and he goes down to the beach. She rises to the surface again and stares intently at the new king. We are left unsure if the cycle is about to repeat itself.
The cast members of Beowulf were filmed on a motion capture stage. They were altered on screen using computer-generated imagery, but their animated counterparts bear much resemblance to themselves.
The central protagonist, Beowulf, is portrayed by Ray Winstone. Zemeckis cast Winstone after seeing his performance as King Henry VIII of England on television. On the topic of the original poem, Winstone commented during an interview that "I had the beauty of not reading the book, which I understand portrays Beowulf as a very one-dimensional kind of character - a hero and a warrior and that was it. I didn't have any of that baggage to bring with me." Winstone enjoyed working with motion capture, stating that, "You were allowed to go, like theater, where you carry a scene on and you become engrossed within the scene. I loved the speed of it. There was no time to sit around. You actually cracked on with a scene and your energy levels were kept up. There was no time to actually sit around and lose your concentration. So, for me, I actually really, really enjoyed this experience." Winstone also noted that his computer-generated counterpart resembled himself at the age of eighteen, although the filmmakers did not have a photo for reference. Winstone also played a dwarf performer, and Beowulf's son, in both human and dragon form.
The antagonists Grendel and Grendel's mother are portrayed by Crispin Glover and Angelina Jolie, respectively. Glover had previously worked with Zemeckis in Back to the Future (1985), when he portrayed George McFly. Zemeckis had found Glover tiresome on set, because of his lack of understanding of shooting a film, but realized this would not be a problem as on a motion capture film he could choose his angles later. Glover's dialogue was entirely in Old English. Jolie had wanted to work with Zemeckis. She had read the poem years ago but could not remember it well until she read the script and was able to recall basic themes. The actress was told that she "was going to be a lizard. Then I was brought into a room with Bob, and a bunch of pictures and examples, and he showed me this picture of a woman half painted gold, and then a lizard. And, I’ve got kids and I thought 'That's great. That's so bizarre. I'm going to be this crazy reptilian person and creature.'" Jolie filmed her role over two days when she was three months pregnant. She was startled by the character's nude human form, stating that for an animated film, "I was really surprised that I felt that exposed."
King Hrothgar is portrayed by Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins noted in an interview that since Zemeckis is an American, he wasn't certain what accent Hopkins should use for the role of Hrothgar. Hopkins told him, "Well, Welsh would be my closest because that's where I come from." It was also his first time working with motion capture technology. Hopkins noted that, "I didn't know what was expected. It was explained to me, I'm not stupid, but I still don't get the idea of how it works. I have no idea you don't have sets, so it is like being in a Brecht play, you know, with just bare bones and you have nothing else." When asked if he had to read the original poem of Beowulf in school, Hopkins replied, "No, I was hopeless at school. I couldn't read anything. I mean I could read, but I was so inattentive. I was one of those poor kids, you know, who was just very slow, didn't know what they were talking about So I tried to get around to reading Beowulf just before I did this movie, and it was a good modern translation. It was Trevor Griffiths, I’m not sure, but I couldn't hack it, and I tend to like to just go with the script if it's a good script."
Unferth is portrayed by John Malkovich. Malkovich became involved in the project because one of his friends, who had worked with Zemeckis, "spoke very highly of him. I had always found him a very interesting and innovative filmmaker. I liked the script very much and I liked the group involved and the process interested me a great deal also." He found the experience of working with motion capture to be similar to his experiences working in the theater. He also found the process intriguing: "say you do a normal day of filmmaking. Sometimes that’s 1/8th of a page, sometimes it’s 3/8th of a page, normally let’s say it’s 2-1/2 pages, maybe 3. Now it’s probably a little more than it used to be but not always. So you may be acting for a total of 20 minutes a day. In this, you act the entire day all the time except for the tiny amount of time it takes them to sort of coordinate the computer information, let’s say, and make sure that the computers are reading the data and that you’re transmitting the data. It interests me on that level because I’m a professional actor so I’d just as soon act as sit around." Malkovich also recalled that he studied the original poem in high school, and that, "I think we got smacked if we couldn’t recite a certain number of stanzas. It was in the Old English class and I think my rendition was exemplary."
The cast also includes:
* Brendan Gleeson as Wiglaf, Beowulf's sidekick.
* Robin Wright Penn as Queen Wealtheow.
* Alison Lohman as Ursula, Beowulf's mistress when he is an old king.
* Sebastian Roché as Wulfgar.
* Greg Ellis as Garmund.
* Dominic Keating as Old Cain, who steals from the dragon, awakening it.
* Tyler Steelman as Young Cain.
* Rik Young as Eofor.
* Charlotte Salt as Estrith.
* Leslie Harter Zemeckis as Yrsa.
"It occured to me that Grendel has always been described as the son of Cain, meaning half-man, half-demon, but his mother was always said to be full demon. So who's the father? It must be Hrothgar, and if Grendel is dragging men back to the cave then it must be for the mother, so that she can attempt to sire another of demonkind."
— Roger Avary
Author Neil Gaiman and screenwriter Roger Avary wrote a screen adaptation of Beowulf in May 1997 (they had met while working on a film adaptation of Gaiman's The Sandman in 1996, before Warner Bros. canceled it). One objective was to offer their own interpretation for motivations behind Grendel's behavior as well as for what happened when Beowulf was in the cave of Grendel's mother. They justified these choices by arguing that Beowulf acts as an unreliable narrator in the portion of the poem in which he describes his battle with Grendel's mother. These choices also helped them to better connect the third act to the second of their screenplay, which is divided in the poem by a 50-year gap.
The script had been optioned by ImageMovers in the same year and set up at DreamWorks with Avary slated to direct and Zemeckis producing. Avary stated he wanted to make a small-scale, gritty film, with a budget of $15-20 million, similar to Jabberwocky or Excalibur. The project eventually went into turnaround after the option expired, the rights returned to Avary, who went on to direct an adaptation of The Rules of Attraction. In January 2005, producer Steve Bing, at the behest of Zemeckis who was wanting to direct the film himself, revived the production by convincing Avary that Zemeckis' vision, supported by the strength of digitally enhanced live action, was worth relinquishing the directorial reins. Zemeckis did not like the poem, but enjoyed reading the screenplay. Because of the expanded budget, Zemeckis told the screenwriters to rewrite their script, because "there is nothing that you could write that would cost me more than a million dollars per minute to film. Go wild!" In particular, the entire fight with the dragon was rewritten from a talky confrontation to a battle spanning the cliffs and the sea.
In designing the dragon, production designer Doug Chiang wanted to create something unique in film. The designers looked at bats and flying squirrels for inspiration, and also designed its tail to allow underwater propulsion. As the beast is Beowulf's son with Grendel's mother, elements such as Winstone's eyes and cheekbone structure were incorporated into its look.
Columbia Pictures was set to distribute the film, but Steven Bing did not finalize a deal, and arranged with Paramount Pictures for U.S. distribution and Warner Bros. Pictures for international distribution. Beowulf was set to premiere at the 2007 Venice Film Festival, but was not ready in time. The film's world premiere was held in Westwood, California on November 5, 2007.
To promote the film, a four issue comic book adaptation by IDW Publishing was released every week in October 2007. A video game featuring the vocals of Winstone, Gleeson and Hopkins was released on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC and PSP formats.
At Comic-Con International in July 2006, Gaiman said Beowulf would be released on November 22, 2007. The following October, Beowulf was announced to be projected in 3-D in over 1,000 theaters for its release date in November 2007. The studios planned to use 3-D projection technology that had been used by Monster House, Chicken Little, and 3-D re-release of The Nightmare Before Christmas, but on a larger scale than previous films. Beowulf would additionally be released in 35mm alongside the 3-D projections.
As of November 21, 2007 on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, Beowulf received a rating of 69 percent, based upon 144 reviews. The "cream of the crop" mainstream critics rank the film a 70 percent, with an average reviewer rating of 6.5/10. On Metacritic, the film had an average score of 59 out of 100, based on 35 reviews, indicating "mixed or average" reviews.
Giving Beowulf three out of four stars, Roger Ebert argued that the film was a satire of the poem, stating that, "This leads to a great deal of well-timed Austinpowerism, which translates (as Wikipedia does not explain) as 'putting things in the foreground to keep us from seeing the family jewels.'" Ebert also suggested that "some of the dialog sounds like Monty Python." TIME magazine critic Richard Corliss described the film as one with "power and depth" and suggests that the "effects scenes look realer, more integrated into the visual fabric, because they meet the traced-over live-action elements halfway. It all suggests that this kind of a moviemaking is more than a stunt. By imagining the distant past so vividly, Zemeckis and his team prove that character capture has a future." Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers stated that, "The eighth-century Beowulf, goosed into twenty-first century life by a screenplay from sci-fi guru Neil Gaiman and Pulp Fiction's Roger Avary, will have you jumping out of your skin and begging for more I've never seen a 3-D movie pop with this kind of clarity and oomph. It's outrageously entertaining."
Tom Ambrose of Empire wrote that, "Beowulf was "the finest example to date of the mo-capabilities of this new technique... you’ll be glad to know that the creepy dead eyes thing has been fixed." Giving the film four stars out of five, Ambrose praised Winstone's performance with its "burgeoning humanity and poignant humility as Beowulf finally realizes what it takes to be a true hero." He felt audiences should see the 3D version of the film, for its "subtle choreography of action scenes that instantly embed you in the action", and was awed by the dragon sequence. He found that Malkovich was too hammy and the film was sometimes austere. Todd Gilchrist of IGN gave the film a positive review, arguing "CGI was in its infancy twenty years ago, and we are now capable of rendering virtually anything on film; meanwhile audiences are so familiar with the process that they are steadily less impressed the more sophisticated these creatures, characters and landscapes become. How cynical have we become that we no longer appreciate works of art, instead search desperately for their flaws? Ultimately it doesn't matter whether you think that the CGI looks perfectly realistic (which it isn't supposed to), only that it is believable in the context of the film (which it is)."
Justin Chang of Variety gave the film a mixed review, praising its depiction of the source material and the performances, but he felt "Zemeckis prioritizes spectacle over human engagement, in his reliance on a medium that allows for enormous range and fluidity in its visual effects yet reduces his characters to 3-D automatons. While the technology has improved since 2004's Polar Express (particularly in the characters' more lifelike eyes), the actors still don't seem entirely there. Beowulf is more vocally than visually commanding." Total Film suggested that while the computer models worked in close-up, "when the frame shifts to long shot... the assorted thanes and swains in Hopkins' court have all the definition of an extra from Shrek. If this is the future of film, though, we'll stick with the past." Total Film further argued that the language, violence, and nudity were anachronistic and prurient, and that while the Grendel fight was worth watching, the dragon sequence was too long.
National Public Radio critic Kenneth Turan criticized the film stating that, "It's been 50 years since Hollywood first started flirting with 3-D movies, and the special glasses required for viewing have gotten a whole lot more substantial. The stories being filmed are just as flimsy. Of course Beowulf does have a more impressive literary pedigree than, say, Bwana Devil. But you'd never know that by looking at the movie What's most troubling about Beowulf, though, is what it says about the Zemeckis' career. He's gone from being a director of stories to an orchestrator of eye candy — and a willing slave to technological advances. But rarely has so much expensive technique been put at the service of such feeble and pathetic screenwriting." New York Times critic Manohla Dargis also argued that, "Stripped of much of the original poem’s language, its cadences, deep history and context, this film version of Beowulf doesn’t offer much beyond 3-D oohs and ahs, sword clanging and a nicely conceived dragon, which probably explains why Mr. Zemeckis and his collaborators have tried to sex it up with Ms. Jolie, among other comic-book flourishes." San Francisco Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle suggested that, "As for Beowulf itself, it's all about the visuals, which means that as soon as the novelty of 3-D wears off, the experience has been had. It's the Beowulf saga once again, and the movie becomes tiresome and trivial - well done within the narrow limits of its aspiration but not worth the inflated effort. To do Beowulf again, there should be some reason to do Beowulf at all. In 2005, for example, Beowulf & Grendel revisited the tale in order to present Grendel as a nice guy with his own point of view. That was a very bad reason to revisit Beowulf, but at least it was a reason. With this film, director Robert Zemeckis doesn't seem to have a clear purpose, beyond exploring the technological possibilities of motion capture. He does that, for sure. The spooky eye movements that characterized The Polar Express are gone."
In The Chronicle of Higher Education, film critic and philosophy professor Stephen T. Asma said that the film transports the poem, with its pagan values, into a Christian world -- and in the process makes it a story about 21-century guilt. "Zemeckis's more tender-minded film version suggests that the people who cast out Grendel are the real monsters. The monster, according to this charity paradigm, is just misunderstood rather than evil. The blame for Grendel's violence is shifted to the humans, who sinned against him earlier and brought the vengeance upon themselves. The only real monsters, in this tradition, are pride and prejudice.... In the original, Beowulf is a hero. In the new film, he's basically a jerk, whose most sympathetic moment is when he finally realizes that he's a jerk. It's hard to imagine a more complete reversal of values from the original Beowulf story."
Beowulf ranked #1 in the United States and Canada box office during its opening weekend, grossing $27.5 million in 3,153 theaters.
As of November 19, 2007, the film has grossed $30.1 million in the United States and Canada. As of November 18, 2007 the film has grossed $17.3 million in other territories, for a cumulative worldwide gross of $47.4 million.