Review: Beowulf and Grendel

Often filmed, and usually by trying to put a spin to it, the ancient Beowulf poem has rarely been more realistic than in Beowulf and Grendel. It is also a less epic version than most movies on the subject try to be, so how does it hold up against expensive, fat, effects-filled blockbuster adaptions?

In an ancient kingdom, Beowulf and Grendel dvda monster is terrorizing the king and his court, so when the hero Beowulf arrives, he is given the task of killing the monster. However, it turns out that the monster is not just a regular troll. That’s the simple but classic premise for this “realistic” adaption of Beowulf, the poem. I say “realistic” because obviously there are exaggerations, artistic freedom and invented truths in this version. There are fewer fantastical and supernatural aspects than in other versions though, and in fact, by stretching real life possibilities somewhat, one might imagine that the way the poem is translated here, is how it could have happened in real life. Between the lines, this movie offers a scientific explanation for how a myth and a legend might start to exist, and it’s not something you’d find completely unbelievable. Still, there is enough artistic licence for the movie to fit within the general fantasy category.

Another way this movie is closer to reality is the amount and type of dialogue. The dialogue is more theatrical and in a way poetic, more so than in straight action adaptions, which may seem strange as nonfictional people never talk like poems, but this aspect reminds you of the source material and also adds character depth to major figures in the story, especially the king (Stellan Skarsgard) and Beowulf (Gerard Butler).

Beowulf and Grendel still

The fact that the movie is directed by Icelander Sturla Gunnarsson (who has a long and illustrous career in Canada), who must have drawn plenty from his closeness to actual Viking heritage, adds to the realistic look and feel of the movie, which by no means is glossy or overstyled. It very much looks like a real Viking action movie, except spiced up by Grendel.

Action is an essential part of any modern Beowulf movie and here it exists just about enough. Action scenes are not many but pretty intense and gory, and in particular one scene is gut-wrenching and painful to watch, due to the realistic nature. How sympathy for the monster has been built also adds impact to the scenes, and things are not quite as simple as they may seem at first glance. The movie manages well to blend several layers into its action scenes, such as characterization, emotions and motives, so neither the gore nor the killings are gratitous or exploitive.

Beowulf and Grendel still2

On the downside, the movie does seem a little too confined to a few locations and a small group of characters. The feeling of “a kingdom under threat” is nowhere to be seen; it’s more a personal struggle for the king and his men. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but in fact one doesn’t root for the king or the small kingdom, and even Beowulf isn’t a clear-cut hero, not in terms of who you have sympathy for. The monster becomes the anti-hero, and this is left with loose ends not tied up. The movie could have gone deeper into this part of the story, as there is a lot of interesting stuff to be explored on that level. It seems as if the movie wanted to go there, but could not afford it.

Beowulf and Grendel is a very competently directed movie, but is perhaps not for those who expect a straight action epic or easy popcorn entertainment. Fans of Stellan Skarsgard should also see the movie, as he has never been more unglamorous than here.

Rated 7 of 10.

Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson.

Canada / UK / Iceland / USA, 2005.

Review: Legends of Valhalla

It’s no surprice that thor-dvdfrontVikings and Norse mythology are the themes of Legends of Valhalla: Thor, the first animated feature film made on Iceland.

In a small nation, it is relatively easy to be the first with something. Iceland’s first horror film came in 2009, and their first animated feature (this film) was released in 2012, not surprisingly on the thankful theme of Vikings and their beliefs. The 3D CGI adventure blends action, mythology, religion, magic, superstition and the forces of the gods in a rather traditional way, but it’s always nice to see homegrown stories like this.

Thor was the Norse god representing thunder, lightning, storms, strength, the protection of mankind, and fertility. In the film, Thor is actually a teen blacksmith who lives with his widowed mother in a small Viking village. According to what he has been told, he is the son of Odin, the king of the Norse gods, residing in Valhalla, the after-life feast hall. Sure enough, Odin is there but is not keen on recognising or helping is son. But things change when an army of giants, the stupid but strong Jotuns, invade the village and take the inhabitants to Hel, the queen of the Norse underworld.

So, the 3D CG craze has reached Iceland (this is mostly an Icelandic film – some funding and animated came from Ireland and Germany), a country in the Nordic region with a quarter the number of inhabitants of a medium sized European city. That does not necessarily prevent them from making good movies, but it also explains why they would invest in a fantasy film for children, when trying their skills in animated CGI. Children’s films can be quite profitable, but they also occasionally suffer from poor characters or basic animation in favour of cheap solutions such as talking animals, “because that is what kids like”. In this film, there are no talking animals (unless you count the trolls as animals), but there is a talking hammer, Crusher, which plays an essential role. Can not fantasy films for young viewers be made without talking animals or talking objects? Sure they can, and it isn’t exactly a creative choice anymore to give life to objects just to make it fun for the young ones. On the action side, stunts, fights and jumps are plentiful, and of course it is cartoonish (this is not Beowulf), which to some may be annoying but again, this is a child’s film and without impossible events it would have been a boring movie. I watched the 2D version and there are not too many moments where events are designed to look spectacular in 3D and comes out flat in 2D.

Legends of Valhalla:thor frame Thor (in some countries known as Thor: Legend of the Magical Hammer) offers some fun and tough characters, nice animation and a story with potential, but the comedy is too slapstick-y cheap. It may work on the kids the film is intended for (I would guess 7 to 12 year olds) but for genre fans and general audiences there is little in the story or in the jokes that keep the movie interesting for long periods of time. Vikings and their gods are always interesting as such, and in fact that is what saves the film; if nothing else, you get a little insight into Norse mythology, although the film isn’t a factual history lesson (those Valhalla houses, for example, look more Medieval than Viking). The most innovative part about the film is how sacrifices to the gods work, a little side-story that, considering it is the only surprise here, says much about the rest of the film.

As a genre entry, even taking the intended audience in mind, Legends of Valhalla: Thor is nothing spectacular, innovative or cross-reaching. What it is though, is a run-of-the-mill fantasy adventure, set in a time and in places that in themselves are attractive enough to keep children entertained. Legends of Valhalla: Thor lands on its feet, but earns no points for elegance.

Rated 4 of 10.

Directed by Óskar Jónasson.

Iceland, 2012.