Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 114 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Spanish, French
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
MSRP: $ 29.99
Release Date: February 26, 2008
Review Date: February 18, 2008
Robert Zemickis’ Beowulf is the second film by the director using motion capture CGI technology. Far more successful and lifelike than The Polar Express, the technology takes a giant leap forward with this production. Has it been perfected? No: there’s still an obvious animation quality to some of the work, and things like blood and water just haven’t been mastered yet. But the performances of the cast and the presentation of the story seize one’s attention and hold it for the entire duration of the film. It’s a well told tale using a technology that’s good and can possibly be even better in the future.
Most everyone who’s completed a public school education has been exposed to the Old English legend of Beowulf, the first in a series of noble heroes written down in the English language. (The Old English in which the songs were first noted is used sporadically in the screenplay, especially with the monsters speaking with one another and in the song of Beowulf recited at a feast.) Swedish warrior Beowulf (Ray Winstone) arrives in Denmark in 507 A.D. to rid the land of the hideous monster Grendel (Crispin Glover). The lord of Denmark King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) promises Beowulf a princely prize if he can rid the land of the twelve foot beast who makes mincemeat of hordes of warriors. What Hrothgar doesn’t tell anyone is that Grendel is his son, born illegitimately of a sea demon (Angelina Jolie) who offered him the kingdom in exchange for a son. Beowulf knows that if he’s successful in killing Grendel, he’ll also have to destroy the demon, but what might she offer him in exchange for being allowed to survive?
Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary’s screenplay keeps action hopping throughout the film’s running time. There are four encounters with monsters for Beowulf alone not to mention the warriors’ attempting to deal with Grendel before Beowulf arrives. In true superhero fashion, the derring-do takes center stage, but these are heroes with flaws and human weaknesses, so much credit should be extended to the writers for humanizing the larger than life title character. Ray Winstone’s vocal inflections will remind you instantly of Gerard Butler’s Spartan king in ‘300,’ and he has the same fearlessness against his enemies, too.
The other actors also do sterling vocal work with Crispin Glover a terrifying and terrified Grendel, Anthony Hopkins a desperately sad king, Brendan Gleeson the soul of faithfulness as Beowulf’s second in command, and John Malkovich as Unferth, initially an insidious schemer before humbling himself once Beowulf’s prowess is shown to be real. Angelina Jolie is perfectly cast as the siren sea demon though her accent will remind you of her Transylvanian-like performance in Alexander.
For some unfathomable reason, the animators have chosen not to sully the facial features of any of the female characters (Robin Wright Penn and Alison Lohman play the biggest roles) in the story (Jolie, being otherworldly, can be thus excused for having a flawless complexion), and thus these porcelain dolls constantly remind one he’s watching animation rather than live action throughout their participation in the story. The men’s features are scarred, lined, wrinkled, and hairy, and as the story covers a wide range of years, they age. The women don’t seem to, a definite mistake in conception and execution.
Otherwise, though, Zemeckis’ direction is thrilling with dozens of aerial shots that are breathtaking in their sweep and vision, and action scenes, even those like the sequence with the sea monsters which looks much less humanesque than other action moments. There are several sequences in the movie (Beowulf being dragged by the dragon through a forest of spiky trees, for one) that are among the best animation in the history of the genre. He gets a pitifully touching performance from Glover, and Winstone, who plays not only Beowulf but also his son (nothing else said here to resist spoiling any surprises), is as hale and hearty as one could expect a legendary superhero to be.
The film’s 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio is presented in a gorgeous anamorphic transfer. Shown in 3-D during its theatrical release, this 2-D release in standard definition is as astoundingly dimensional as standard definition can ever be. (One look at the sea demon‘s cave lair with its contrasting pinpoints of light amid the blackness just takes the breath away. One imagines the HD-DVD will be stunning.) Sharpness is ideal, blacks are as rich and inky as one could possibly want, and the fine object detail of castle walls, swords, and garments is exemplary. The film is divided into 15 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is as action-filled, immersive, and deep as any modern action film around. Discreet sounds are placed accordingly in all front and rear channels as needed, Alan Silvestri’s music drives poundingly throughout the film, and the LFE channel gets the expected full workout. Even quiet moments between action sequences finds the twittering of birds or rippling water most effective in the corners of the room.
“A Hero’s Journey: The Making of Beowulf” is a 23½-minute anamorphic overview on the motion capture process used in filming this movie. All of the primary actors are interviewed for the piece which is the most substantial item in the bonus offerings.
“Beasts of Burden: Designing the Creatures of Beowulf” is a 7-minute summation of the four monsters who were constructed in the computer for the film: Grendel, Grendel’s mother, the one-eyed sea monster, and the dragon. The special effects director discusses why certain looks were created for each creature in an interesting but too-short anamorphic featurette.
“The Origins of Beowulf” spends its 5 minutes with screenwriter Roger Avary discussing which parts of the Old English legend of the hero were retained for the film and what parts of the movie story were created just for this film. It’s good information for those who have forgotten Beowulf from high school English class. It’s also in anamorphic widescreen.
“Creating the Ultimate Beowulf” discusses how aspects of somewhat overweight character actor Ray Winstone were woven into the burly superheroic title character by the animators. This anamorphic featurette runs only 2 minutes.
“The Art of Beowulf” has production designer Doug Chiang describing which parts of the sets were accurate according to the sixth century setting of the story and which parts of the sets were total inventions to enhance the pictorial elegance of the design. This anamorphic featurette runs 5½ minutes.
There are 6 deleted scenes offered which can be viewed together or separately. None of the sequences are finished animation, but one gets what’s going on in each one. Only the last one involving the golden horn might have been a valuable addition to the finished film. Together the scenes run 10 minutes.
The original theatrical trailer is offered in anamorphic widescreen and runs 2 minutes.
The disc offers previews of Ironman, Shine a Light, and The Kite Runner.
Beowulf arrives on home video in an exceptional looking and sounding DVD release. The epic story does not overstay its welcome and constitutes an obvious advance in motion capture animation techniques. It’s an enjoyable adventure even without the 3-D, one that brought back some definite memories of English classes of long ago.