'Beowulf' In 3D

Ray Winstone in a scene from "Beowulf." (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures) AP Photo/Paramount Pictures

The name "Beowulf" alone surely will inspire painful memories of high-school English class and pangs of dread.

Never fear. This 3-D animated "Beowulf" is more like "300," only with more violence, if that's possible. And nudity - lots and lots of nudity.

Director Robert Zemeckis, using the same performance-capture technology he introduced with 2004's "The Polar Express," takes on the epic Old English poem by sexing it up. It's the cinematic equivalent of slipping pureed spinach into your kids' brownies.


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Adapted by Neil Gaiman (the "Sandman" comics) and Roger Avary (who co-wrote "Pulp Fiction"), the film follows the mythic Viking hero who emerges from the sea to rid a Danish kingdom of the bloody, raging, pus-covered monster Grendel (played with pathos and twisted physicality by Crispin Glover). Only then can there be much merrymaking and mead-drinking and wench-bedding.

2The 3-D effects are extremely cool -- and "Beowulf" is also being shown in IMAX 3-D, if your brain can stand the sensory overload. The way stuff comes at you (swords, spurts of blood) and seems to come out of nowhere from behind you (buildings, ocean waves), along with Zemeckis' use of reflections and realistic perspectives, makes you feel as if you're fully immersed in this ancient world. But then the characters look distractingly fake and stiff, as if they're made of wax -- that's an element of the technology that hasn't improved much since "Polar Express," unfortunately.

The storied Beowulf is played with a growl and a roar and very little clothing by Ray Winstone, though the character on screen strangely looks nothing like Winstone, the slightly tubby yet powerful British actor best known for his work in "The Departed" and "Sexy Beast." Everyone else in the stellar cast resembles the actors playing them: Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Robin Wright Penn, Brendan Gleeson and especially Angelina Jolie as Grendel's seductive, magical mother.

After watching his celebratory hall torn apart and many of his people slaughtered, Hopkins' aging King Hrothgar prays that someone will come to his kingdom and kill the mighty, and mightily misunderstood, Grendel. (And the creature is a frighteningly grotesque figure to behold.) His prayers are answered when Beowulf arrives on his shores with his army of warriors; meanwhile, his young queen, Wealthow (Penn), finds herself unexpectedly smitten.

Beowulf likes the riches, women and celebrity that being a well-known slayer of sea monsters and dragons can bring -- so much so that he perhaps fudges the details here and there in the retelling of his many conquests. (Malkovich, as the kingdom's jealous, lone skeptic, gets some bitingly funny zingers as he tries to take Beowulf down a few notches.)

Nevertheless, when it comes time to take on this beast in the town hall, Beowulf promptly strips down -- no weapons, no armor - to fight Grendel on equal terms, mano a mangled mano. (His nudity also allows for an amusing sequence, reminiscent of "Austin Powers," in which several items are placed strategically to obscure his manhood: a candlestick, one of his men's helmets. So naughty!)

3Beowulf must then take on Grendel's mother to erase completely the curse that his plagued the kingdom. She makes it tough, though. As played by Jolie, she's covered in nothing but iridescent gold with high heels for feet and a braid that whips around like a devil's tail. (Besides, if you had magical powers, wouldn't you turn yourself into naked Angelina Jolie?)

Unless you're a fantasy geek, though, it's hard to take all this swordplay and dragon slaying seriously. Beowulf bellows "I am Beowulf!" so many times, it could be a drinking game; it certainly rivals "This is Sparta!" as the year's preferred macho catch phrase. (And yes, fanboys, bring it on - the misogynistic e-mail onslaught that came after reviewing "300" wasn't enough for one lifetime.)

Themes of heroism and bravery and loyalty seem secondary here. Depicted today, this comes off as a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of undeserved fame. Beowulf could be Paris Hilton, if Paris Hilton had a goatee and six-pack abs.

"Beowulf," a Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sexual material and nudity. Running time: 113 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

By Christy Lemire
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