(2007, Fantasy-Sword and Sorcery/Animation, color)
Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy
Think of all the technology and creativity that went into simply not showing us his junk.
In a nutshell:
A naked, growling man shouts his own name a lot while killing monsters.
In ancient Denmark, drunken king Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) inaugurates his new mead hall Heorot with a raucous party, complete with barrels of mead, gaggles of promiscuous wenches, and lots of off-tune singing at migraine-inducing volume. All the noise stirs the ire of a neighboring monster named Grendel. (Voice by Crispin Glover, body by an enormous fetal pig that’s been stretched thin and then fed through a threshing machine.) Grendel proceeds to crash the party and gruesomely murder many of the attendees.
Hrothgar spreads the word that he’ll give half the gold in his kingdom to the man who can slay Grendel. The eponymous Beowulf (Ray Winstone) and his thanes sail from Geatland to answer the call. After trading barbs with Hrothgar’s cowardly adviser Unferth (John Malkovich) and openly flirting with the king’s young wife Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn), Beowulf strips naked and goes to sleep in the mead hall while his men sing into the night.
Naturally, the singing disturbs Grendel, who comes to stop the noise. A longish fight ensues, in which three of Beowulf’s thanes perish horribly. Beowulf watches until he determines the monster’s weakness—an enlarged ear that throbs with every sound. The naked warrior climbs on the monster’s back and pounds on the ear until it bursts. Somehow this robs Grendel of his power; he shrinks in stature until he’s man-sized. Beowulf catches him in the door as he tries to escape, slamming it over and over on Grendel’s arm until it comes off. The wounded monster flees into the night.
Grendel returns to his underground lair and dies in his mother’s arms. The monstrous mother flies to Heorot, where the Danes and Geats have hung the arm over the Heorot’s door and passed out after celebrating into the night. She murders all the remaining Geats in their sleep, except for Beowulf and his servant Wiglaf. Beowulf flies into a rage the next day. Why didn’t anyone tell him the thing had parents? Hrothgar placatingly replies that the father is harmless these days, and that he’d hoped the mother had moved on. He sends Beowulf to kill Grendel’s mother.
Beowulf finds her lair readily enough, using a magic glowing mead horn to light his way through the water. Inside he meets the nameless water demoness in question, now taking the form of a nude Angelina Jolie. Rather than fight him, she seduces him with the following bargain: If he will lie with her and get her with a child to replace her lost Grendel, she will see that he gets an epic song to ensure his fame for ages to come. Beowulf gives her his magic mead horn to seal their agreement, and the scene fades to black.
Back at Heorot, Beowulf shows Grendel’s head to the king, claiming to have slain the mother as well. While everyone celebrates, Hrothgar knowingly takes Beowulf aside and tries to get the truth out of him. The conversation is brief and oblique, but eventually we understand that Hrothgar once entered into the same bargain, and Grendel was the eventual result. Hrothgar would rather Beowulf had killed the demoness, noting that now she is Beowulf’s curse instead of his. He returns to the party to announce Beowulf as his heir, and then throws himself from the tower window.
Years later, Beowulf still rules Denmark as an old and unhappy man, dealing with wave after wave of invaders who’ve heard his fame and want to kill him to become famous themselves. During a feast at Heorot, Unferth calls him aside to deliver something. It’s the golden mead horn, found by his slave out on the moors. The troubled Beowulf realizes this means that his deal with the demoness is off, and indeed, that night a dragon attacks a nearby village. Beowulf returns to the demoness’ lair to return the horn and ask her to leave his kingdom in peace. The demoness regretfully refuses. The deal was not broken by her, but by their son, the dragon.
The dragon-boy bursts out of the lair in pursuit of his father, and then flies off to destroy Heorot. Beowulf catches hold and gets dragged along behind him. The fight goes to the bottom of the ocean and then up over the castle, where the dragon threatens to burn Beowulf’s wives. Beowulf finds the dragon’s weak spot at the throat and cuts it open, then reaches inside to crush the heart. He has to cut off his own arm to reach, but after several attempts, he manages to kill it. They fall to the beach below, where he mourns for his dead son, and then dies himself while confessing the truth about the demoness to Wiglaf. They put him to sea in a burning ship, where the demoness waits to take possession of his body. The movie ends as Wiglaf and the demoness stare at each other over the water.
I first saw Beowulf in IMAX 3D in Mesa, Arizona. It was the first IMAX 3D movie I’d ever seen, and though I recognized it was not great cinema, I still managed to enjoy myself. When Rifftrax announced a commentary for it, I was prepared to enjoy it even more, since adding Mike Nelson and friends to a movie I like has hitherto been a recipe for good times.
And the Beowulf commentary is good times, intermittently at least, but I believe this may be the very first time where I enjoyed the movie more when I saw it without the commentary. There are, I suspect, two reasons for this:
First: IMAX 3D. During my original experience with this film, when Hrothgar threw treasure into the crowd, the coins bounced out at me. Spears flew upwards and outwards to jab towards eyes and groins. Gore and mead splattered every which way. Here’s a movie that pummels you relentlessly with spectacle—spectacle that gets rather reduced on the small screen. Yes, it’s got other elements—some serious, some silly—but if you’re not punch drunk from all the violence, shouting, and digital buttocks, none of it holds together. It’s rather sad, because the film has some interesting things to say about the nature of legends, and what it means to be a hero. Unfortunately, we can’t pay attention to any of them because we’re always distracted by Beowulf’s farcical Austin Powers-esque PG-13 nudity, his constant growling proclamations of name and deeds, and Angelina’s languorous airbrushed full frontals*.
This leads to the second reason: Having established that enjoyment of the film depends on an act of prestidigitation—distracting us with one hand while the other moves the rabbit into place—it doesn’t help to have the peanut gallery pointing to the other hand all the time. Please don’t take this to mean that Mike and company aren’t funny. Sections of the Beowulf/Rifftrax experience are gut-bustingly hilarious. When Beowulf bursts out of a sea monster’s eye and shouts his own name, Mike promises Bill and Kevin that if he ever does such a thing, he’ll think of something better to shout than “MIIIIIIIIIKE!” During the carefully choreographed naked fight with Grendel, Kevin says, “Think of all the technology and creativity that went into simply not showing us his junk.” Whenever Grendel is on screen, Bill thinks of a new way to describe him, such as “that thing my dog threw up,” “a talking lump of poo,” “the ‘Leave Britney Alone’ guy in a rubber suit,” “a dangerously huge wad of chewed gum,” and “chicken skin and gorilla glue.” The problem, I believe, is that Rifftrax and Beowulf are working at cross purposes. Beowulf can be enjoyed if you let it distract you from its less-than-brilliant elements. Rifftrax commentaries can be enjoyed if you laugh along with them at said less-than-brilliant elements. Perhaps my problem with this commentary is that it forces me to choose a side, and I don’t want to.
*A word about Angelina Jolie’s nudity. It’s full frontal, but since she’s smooth where her naughty bits should be, the film gets to stay PG-13. I’m not sure I agree with this, especially since the leering camera focuses on the places where her genitalia would be in a way that’s less subtle than pornography. Not only do I find this extremely creepy—apparently someone assumed I would be aroused by what amounts to a digital Barbie doll—but it’s misleading in a way that takes unfair advantage of the rating system. Either give her genitals and accept your NC-17 rating, or give her a strategically placed steam bath like you did with naked Beowulf earlier in the movie. This in-between stuff is really, really disturbing in a way that detracts from the rest of the film.
(2007, Fantasy-Sword and Sorcery/Animation, color)