When a book's spent several centuries in the public domain, it's OK to play with it some. Thankfully so -- because what brings Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf alive is less its high-tech animation than the liberties he and screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary take with the medieval epic.
The film's first half hews broadly to the original, in which heroic Beowulf (voiced by Ray Winstone) arrives to save old King Hrothgar's (Anthony Hopkins) people from the ravening monster Grendel. I'm ambivalent about photo-realistic digital animation -- the closer it gets to "real," the more time you waste hunting for flaws -- but Beowulf looks fine. Zemeckis' bravura moves include a deliriously lengthy backward tracking shot from Hrothgar's festive mead-hall across snowy hills to Grendel's cavern lair. The fights provide adequate eye-candy. In another nice touch, Grendel is voiced in plaintive Old English -- and spine-fraying howls -- by Crispin Glover, whose on-screen avatar has the pitiable hideousness of a rotting corpse and the pathos of an adolescent tormented by barbaric adults.
Still, Act One is a lot of bombast. After 45 minutes or so, I was ready to give up on the film entirely but for the characterization of Beowulf as a comical (if unconquerable) blowhard; hints of Hrothgar's role in Grendel's paternity; and a curious subplot about the coming of Christianity to pagan 6th-century Denmark.
The filmmakers, however, come bearing a twist. And it's not just their surprisingly skeptical take on the advent of Christianity (a religion which doesn't figure in tradition's Beowulf, except in the asides of some latter-day Christian scribe). The big change is that Hrothgar really is Grendel's pater -- a plotline decidedly absent from the original. And Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie) is no hag. Rather, she's a shape-shifting sylph, and instead of slaying her, this revisionist Beowulf strikes a secret, Faustian bargain that lets her live, provides her another son, and makes Beowulf king. Decades later, the deal sours with a vengeance when that hybrid spawn -- a huge golden dragon -- returns to wreak such havoc as poor, half-witted Grendel never imagined.
Thus, Gaiman, who wrote the classic graphic novel Sandman, and Avary recast a story of mythic heroism in the face of inexplicable evil as a tale of mythic heroism in the face of blowback. Their Beowulf is a mighty but flawed man who is seduced by the devil and who, late in life, is forced to admit his mistakes. But he's big enough to go to desperate ends to make things right.
A leader who learns from his errors, and takes responsibility for his actions? That truly is the stuff of myth.