Former students of the late, great UCSB English professor Frank Gardiner no doubt remember his beloved anecdote usually told at the end of his three-quarter-long Old English class. The story concerned a Vietnam vet student who openly wept upon translating the end of the poem Beowulf, realizing its hero’s ultimate failure and-far worse by implication-the ultimate obliteration of Wulfie’s tribe, those noble Weder Geats. A sad poem indeed.
I think it’s safe to say nobody-including my former Gardiner student self-expected Robert Zemeckis to capture the harrowing tragedy of this epic in a 3D motion-capture animated feature film. That said, it was a bit surprising to discover how closely Zemeckis and screenwriter Neil Gaiman (Stardust) did hew to the original. The film is frequently beautiful, by the way, with dimensional depths and nice perspective surprises. Even more shocking was how well the duo rationalized their major departure from the poem’s discussion of fate, choosing instead to create a cartoon that explores personal responsibility when dealing with sexual favors from a fetching water demon who looks a lot like Angelina Jolie.
Yet it’s also safe to say that few film adaptations of Anglo Saxon poems are as unintentionally hilarious as this unpredictable stew. For instance, Beowulf inexplicably decides to fight monster Grendel while naked, obviously to vie with last year’s 300 for most gratuitous homoeroticism. But, presumably needing to preserve a PG-13 rating, the film resorts to Austin Powers-style penis obstruction gags (candlesticks, spears), inviting audience guffaws in scenes that ought to be scary. Grendel himself looks like a refugee from a crazed Gumby cartoon; his worst power seems to be his long strands of drool.
In short, Beowulf would make the sad vet laugh and Professor Gardiner turn over a little in his grave. For the rest of us, however, this sexed-up remake of the original, tragic epic has replaced gloom with a fine lesson that we should well heed. Real heroes keep their pants on in the mead hall and also, especially, whilst cave-swimming with Angelina Jolie.