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Embellished, Sexed-Up Beowulf Falls Flat

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • 2007 16 Nov
Embellished, Sexed-Up <i>Beowulf</i> Falls Flat

DVD Release Date:  February 26, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  November 16, 2007
Rating:  PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sexual material and nudity)
Genre:  Action, Fantasy, Animation
Run Time:  115 min.
Director:  Robert Zemeckis
Actors:  Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Crispin Glover, Angelina Jolie, Robin Wright Penn, John Malkovich, Alison Lohman

Think you know Beowulf? Fuggedaboutit!

In the hands of screenwriters Neil Gaiman (Stardust) and Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction), this adaptation adds a large dose of sex, nudity and moral failing to the epic poem’s story of a hero from across the seas who fights monsters at his own peril. Full of potential to reinvigorate interest in classic literature—especially among young males, with whom such stories have long since fallen out of fashion—this disappointing retelling of the legend starts strong but becomes wearying, padding the tale with plot threads and themes designed for shades of gray rather than the more clear-cut morality at the heart of the well-known story.

That story, in its well-known form, tells of a great warrior who crosses the sea to aid King Hrothgar and the Danes in their struggle against Grendel, a monster who terrorizes the king’s men. Beowulf battles Grendel and Grendel’s mother, then returns triumphant to his homeland, where he becomes king. Decades later, Beowulf is felled while fighting a dragon.

Things have changed in this new film directed by Robert Zemeckis and employing the same motion-capture technology used in The Polar Express. Here, Beowulf (Ray Winstone) arrives on King Hrothgar’s shores after Grendel slaughters several of the king’s men. It’s the first of several harrowing scenes (this is not a film for young children) that tap into the story’s primal energy, but it’s downhill from there. Even the end of this first mayhem-filled sequence includes a confusing confrontation between Grendel and the king that hints at the plot embellishments to come.

Encouraged to pray for help to his gods, or to the “new Roman God, Christ Jesus,” Hrothgar refuses. “No, the gods will do nothing for us,” he says. “What we need is a hero.” Beowulf arrives—announcing, for the first of many times, “I am Beowulf!”—and refusing payment for his efforts to kill Grendel. “If we die, it will be for glory, not for gold,” he tells the king.

But the men are interested in more than mere killing. They celebrate with the king’s men, drinking mead and trying to coax buxom ladies into sleeping with them. Beowulf, meanwhile, has his eye on the king’s wife, Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn). He also has to deal with the snide accusations of Unferth (John Malkovich), whose swipes at the hero are grounded in truth (in the film, but not in the original story)—although Beowulf falsifies his past to retain his godlike image among his men. (The reconciliation between the two men is one of the film’s more affecting scenes.)

Beowulf’s encounter with Grendel is the film’s most terrifying sequence, but even it is marred by a certain video-game quality, as Beowulf jumps on the monster and repeatedly punches him. (The title character’s final encounter with a dragon is similarly weighed down.) It’s representative of the whole film, which is at times visually marvelous (choose the 3-D option if you can), but retains an artificiality that keeps the story and characters at a certain remove from viewers, their lifelike anatomy notwithstanding. Angelina Jolie is Exhibit A. Her lust-inducing sensuality is the movie’s major departure from the source material—a lure to get contemporary male audiences into the theater, if only to ogle the character’s lifelike breasts which are frequently on display.

Anyone who has seen Winstone in Sexy Beast or The Proposition will realize that Beowulf’s physique is not Winstone’s own. And, in one jarring sequence, the filmmakers repeatedly disguise Beowulf’s naked groin area through strategically placed objects in the foreground. Audiences should be forgiven if their laughter makes them take Beowulf even less seriously as a result.

Sadly, this distorted account of the Beowulf story is likely to become the best-known version of the myth. It’s a sign of the times. We’ve forgotten what made the story powerful for so many ages, and are susceptible to the sexed-up revisionism of this new Beowulf in which heroism is hindered by fleshly desire. It’s an epic for our times, with skin and swordplay overwhelming the themes of honor and service that give the widely read story its timeless quality.

Maybe, in time, we’ll forget all about this latest incarnation of Beowulf.

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  • Language/Profanity:  “Damn you.”
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Consumption of mead; a man is accused of a being “a drunk.”
  • Sex/Nudity:  King Hrothgar is partially covered; men’s rear ends are shown; a couple frolics under a blanket; a woman bends over to reveal ample cleavage; a sea creature has human-like breasts; sexual banter; Beowulf drops his armor in front of the queen, revealing his naked body to her, and is shown many times in the buff, with objects in the foreground always concealing his groin area; marital unfaithfulness and illegitimate offspring are a theme in the story; a naked man and woman are shown sleeping next to each other; some kissing.
  • Violence:  Grendel cuts himself and kills multiple people by throwing them against walls, at each other, etc.; Grendel bites off a man’s head and, in silhouette, breaks a man in half and tosses his exposed upper body to the ground; a man is impaled on a chandelier; sea monsters are repeatedly stabbed; an arrow pierces a man; a man leaps to his death; hand-to-hand combat; a weapon lodges in a man’s back; a man tries to pierce a dragon’s heart.
  • Religion:  The men honor Odin and often say “Odin willing” and “Odin be praised,” but they also briefly speak of the new “Roman God,” Christ Jesus; talk of demons and curses.