A review of Robert Zemeckis' CGI opus, Beowulf, could fairly consist of the words, "visually, it's breathtaking and a stunning special effects achievement," repeated some one hundred times, because there isn't much more to say about this film. The acting — or voice-acting, rather, since the performers themselves are completely overlaid with CGI — is uniformly good, which always enhances an animated film.
The script, by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, is fair, with hyperbolic dialogue befitting an adaptation of an epic hero's tale. I didn't find Unferth's (John Malkovich) change of heart toward Beowulf near the end to be quite convincing, but that may have been another demonstration of this character's shallowness. Ray Winstone plays Beowulf with earnest fervor and puts more depth into the role than the script gives him. King Hrothgar is classic Anthony Hopkins, over the top and chewing up more of the sets than Grendel does, but as enjoyable as always. Brendan Gleeson transcends his animated shell as Beowulf's closest friend Wiglaf.
As dazzling as Beowulf is, I left the theatre feeling disappointed, as though I'd worked on a hard task for hours and been paid in Christmas tree tinsel. I didn't see the movie in 3-D, but it was obvious how the shots had been designed to exploit this additional gimmick. Beowulf is unremittingly loud, fast, and brutally violent, and the fact that we're seeing cartoon violence with no emotional consequences doesn't alleviate the impact. After you're hit over the head enough times in a row, you just get numb. Yes, visually, it's breathtaking and a stunning special effects achievement. But I'm tired of every frame of a movie blowing up in my face like a Fourth of July fireworks finale. Often, such pyrotechnics are meant to hide the fact that the film has nothing else to offer.
There is little character development in Beowulf, although some interesting moral and ethical issues arise. Gaiman's adaptation follows the framework of the poem, beginning with Grendel's attack on Hrothgar's "cursed" mead hall, Beowulf's arrival, Grendel's defeat, his mother's retaliation, Beowulf confronting Grendel's Mother, and then jumping ahead fifty years to Beowulf's final battle with a dragon in his old age. Gaiman adds some archetypal elements drawn in part from other mythic sources. As another reviewer noted, the ending of Beowulf invokes the death of King Arthur at the hands of his bastard son, Mordred. Like the Arthur legends, Beowulf repeats a warning to men: if you're faced with a beautiful, inhuman temptress, keep it in your pants, or you will be very, very sorry. The final shot of Beowulf echoes the final shot of John Boorman's Excalibur (1981). Although early Christianity makes an appearance, we're left uncertain what the film is trying to say about it. The strong tension between Paganism and Christianity in Beowulf's time is outlined more clearly in the 2006 movie, Beowulf & Grendel. Gaiman's Beowulf has no obvious ideological or religious grounding. He's simply a generic Hero.