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Bæc be sēo dogor, mid þam þe hererincs swelce hererincs—
Oops, sorry. I slipped into Old English for a minute. Where was I? Oh, yes ... back in the day, when heroes were heroes and monsters polluted Scandinavia like so many thistles, there was a particularly odious beastie named Grendel. ...
Long on drool and short on manners, the nasty-looking brute hates noise—so much so, in fact, that when King Hrothgar throws a party in his nearby mead hall, Grendel goes nuts and slaughters most of the revelers.
The ogre won the battle, but the king isn't about to let it win the war. So he sends word across the known world that anyone who can kill the monster will win half the gold in his kingdom.
Beowulf, a great Geat warrior, answers the call. He sails into town in all his blond, bearded glory and takes on Grendel with his bare—well, everything. Naked, they fight. And when Grendel tries to flee, the warrior rips off the monster's arm—a fatal wound.
There is much rejoicing—for a while. Unfortunately for Hrothgar and Beowulf, Grendel has a mother, and we all know that when mama's not happy, ain't nobody happy. She sneaks into the mead hall late one night and kills another bevy of the besotted. And suddenly, the Geat is forced to kill two monsters for the price of one.
Little does he know that Grendel's remarkably attractive mother has other plans. She tells Beowulf she isn't out for blood—just another son. And she wants Beowulf to be the proud papa.
Beowulf is a he-man of a hero, brave, courageous and—at least by the standards of the day—polite. He feels it'd be more sporting to fight Grendel without weapons (or armor or clothes), so he does.
Though Beowulf is boastful in the beginning, we see him age and mellow as the film progresses—to the point at which he takes responsibility for his own mistakes (which I'll detail later) and sacrifices his own life for the lives of others around him. "I visited this horror on my kingdom," he says after becoming king. "I must be the one to banish her." His last request is to be remembered "not as a king or a hero, but as a man, fallible and flawed."
Beowulf takes place in the 6th century AD, when (the film suggests) Scandinavians were moving away from pagan gods and toward Christianity. This clash of faiths is felt throughout, with Christianity being presented—superficially, at least—as weak and ineffective.
When Grendel starts his rampage, Hrothgar's advisor, Unferth, tells the king that the people are sacrificing to the old gods. He asks Hrothgar if they should also start praying to the "Roman" god Christ Jesus. Hrothgar says, "The gods will not do anything for us that we cannot do for ourselves. What we need is a hero." (Hrothgar and other characters reference the Norse god Odin several times.)
Once the film leaps forward 50 years, Christianity is firmly in control of the land. Beowulf says that "the Christ god" killed all the monsters, and all the heroes, too. All that's left, he laments, is "weeping martyrs" and "shame."
Unferth has apparently become a Christian, wearing a long, monkish cowl and crucifix around his neck. He brandishes it in front of an advancing dragon/man, but loses his family in the dragon's fiery breath and is severely burned himself. He's carted to Beowulf on a cross-like litter to pass on the dragon's message: "The sins of the father." (We also see a cross torched in the dragon's wake.)
After its actors were filmed wearing motion-capture suits, Beowulf was transformed into a computer-animated flick. But that doesn't minimize the hyper-realistic skin often on display. (And never mind that the whole story takes place in cold-and-snowy Denmark.)
Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie) is completely naked throughout her scenes, sometimes covered with a gold-like film dripping off her skin like chocolate. We see her fully from the front and from the back. And while the CGI isn't completely spot-on realistic—think of it as a mash-up of real-life anatomy and a naked Barbie doll—it is still vivid enough to have caused an audience member behind me to crudely whisper, "That Brad Pitt is a lucky man, eh!?" When Jolie herself saw the final footage, she was reportedly embarrassed and called her family to warn them about how much of her virtual self they would be seeing.
Also, as already mentioned, Beowulf fights Grendel in the buff, and audiences see his naked rear as he's bouncing off tables and jumping on chandeliers. His "critical" areas are obscured—hidden by a well-placed hand, a sword hilt or a dozen other objects—but he does expose himself to the swooning Queen Wealthow.
Grendel is also nude—though he doesn't appear to have any sexual organs and his "skin" is little more than a slimy mass of tendons and muscle. Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) parades about in a kind of a loose-hanging toga—one that showcases lots of skin on the sides and, occasionally, the rear. Naked women occasionally frolic in and sleep under blankets that obscure their most private body parts.
One Danish woman appears to try to entice a Geat warrior with her breasts (which move and shake atop a low-cut dress). The Geat later tries to have intimate relations with her, spouting some vulgar come-ons, but she rejects him. Another woman comments on Beowulf's body and jokes about his penis. A Geat suggests that a comrade has a fondness for sheep. And Hrothgar says he hopes his land is a haven for "fornication."
[Spoiler Warning] Grendel, as it turns out, is Hrothgar's illegitimate son, and a good part of the queen's reluctance to sleep with the king is due to his earlier affair with the demon's mother. Grendel's mom also seduces a willing Beowulf, and we see the beginning of their sexual interlude through an indistinct reflection in a shield. (The offspring that results from this union turns out to be a dragon.)
Beowulf begins with Grendel literally ripping apart his victims and ends with Beowulf tearing the still-beating heart out of a dragon. In between, enough virtual blood is spilled to fill a Second Life swimming pool. In 3-D mode, audiences sometimes get doused with the stuff.
Grendel, a 12-foot-tall monstrosity, shreds his victims like paper dolls. He occasionally flings them up in the air, after which they invariably are impaled on something sharp. He tosses them against wood pillars and stone walls. His last snack is the decapitated head of his last victim, which he noisily chews.
When he finally gets his, Beowulf pounds away at Grendel's oversized eardrum (which shatters in splatter) and severs his arm via a huge door. The limb still moves after it falls on the ground, and partyers later nail it up above the door. In retaliation, Grendel's mother spirits herself into the mead hall and kills nearly everyone. Though we don't see the killing, we do see bodies hanging from the rafters.
Beowulf also battles a legion of sea monsters in a flashback: The hero slices through their innards as if they were made of canned cranberries and stabs them in the eyes with unblinking realism. When a monster swallows Beowulf, he manages to stab through its eye from the inside, jumping out in a spray of blood and gore.
[Spoiler Warning] In the climactic battle with the dragon, Beowulf stabs the beast several times—mainly in order to stay with the flying creature—and rips open one of its wings. He slashes its throat at the point where it glows, allowing liquid fire to spill out. When the dragon is emptied of its fire, Beowulf spies its beating heart. Get at the heart and the dragon dies, Beowulf knows, but he can't reach it because one of his arms is caught in thick chains (part of a ship anchor Beowulf has already jammed into the dragon). So Beowulf decides he must cut himself free of his own arm to reach the heart with the other. And he proceeds to do just that.
Someone commits suicide by jumping off a castle wall and falling to the beach below. Unferth beats his servants until they're bruised and swollen.
Crude or Profane Language
The exclamation "d--n" is said about six times. And it's joined by sporadic instances of "b--tard," "h---" and the British curse word "bloody."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Those Danes and Geats love their mead, and the film opens in Hrothgar's notorious hall where people are loaded on the honey-based beer. (Hrothgar is particularly repulsive in his drunken state, and his most prized possession is a golden drinking horn.) Beowulf mentions how famous Hrothgar's mead is throughout the world, and asks for some. But while his comrades drink liberally, Beowulf takes his mead in moderation: He's never shown drunk.
Other Negative Elements
Before English teachers everywhere rush their students off to the theater to soak up this latest incarnation of a literary giant, there are three things to say:
1) The film has very little to do with the book. For one thing, the poem's Christian overlay (Beowulf often credits God for his heroic exploits) is all but replaced by backhanded slaps at Christianity onscreen. In the book, Grendel and his Mother are said to be offspring of Cain, who was cursed by God as recorded in Genesis. That's not in the movie. And Beowulf doesn't "lay" with Grendel's mother in the original, either. Instead, he slays her with a sword made by a race of giants—wiped out, apparently, in the Flood. And when Beowulf confronts the dragon, in the book, he's confronting his own mortality in a particularly splashy way—not his own misbegotten son. So anyone who uses this film as a sort of CliffsNotes is bound to get all the questions wrong on the semester test.
2) Beowulf does say some interesting things about sin and temptation, despite its obstinate overlooking of the poem's overall character. "Many of the themes that are in Beowulf were lifted from the Bible—a heroic man's journey, the fight between good and evil and the price of glory," says director Robert Zemeckis (The Polar Express, Cast Away). Hrothgar, for instance, wallows in a world of sensual gratification and therefore breeds a creature who's plagued by his own hyper-developed senses. Beowulf is boastful, and his "son" is all balled up arrogance and anger draped in a dragon's skin.
Beowulf, the hero, says that in the wake of Christianity, "We men are the monsters now." In Christian teaching, there are indeed monsters without and monsters within. "Filthy rags," the prophet Isaiah calls the best of what we are. And it's Grendel's mother who becomes the temptation that brings these sinful characteristics to horrifying life. So, despite the film's apparent exoskeleton of paganism, it ends with the Christ-like sacrifice Beowulf must make and the idea that he must show incredible courage to confront his own, monstrous mistake.
3) The nudity and violence in Beowulf is such that, had this been a live-action film, the Motion Picture Association of America would've undoubtedly slapped it with an R rating. This may be an animated film—the rationale surely used to justify its PG-13 status—but everything is so realistic it feels like Zemeckis got off on a technicality. Even star Angelina Jolie says she won't take her own children to the film because of its content. "It's remarkable it has the rating it has," she told the BBC. "It's quite an extraordinary film, and some of it shocked me."
A fourth point is therefore not needed. And class is now dismissed.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Ray Winstone as Beowulf; Anthony Hopkins as Hrothgar; John Malkovich as Unferth; Robin Wright Penn as Wealthow; Crispin Glover as Grendel; Angelina Jolie as Grendel's Mother