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Beowulf (2007)

Paramount Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 2/26/2008

All Ratings out of
Video: 1/2
Extras: 1/2
Review by Mike Long, Posted on 2/22/2008

There's an old adage which says, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” This is rarely true in Hollywood, which is ruled by the saying, “You’re only as good as your last film.”, thus something which fails probably won’t get a second chance. When The Polar Express was released in 2004, it was a financial success, and received some good reviews, but nearly everyone who saw it had the same reaction: the animated characters were creepy. The film was the first to be done completely through motion-capture animation and there were clearly some limitations to the facial animation. This clearly didn’t daunt director Robert Zemeckis, as he’s back with another motion-capture animated film, Beowulf. Will this action film overcome the issues which plagued The Polar Express?

Beowulf is based on the tale from 12 centuries ago which became the first story put down in English. The story takes place in Denmark. The mead hall of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) is a festive place, where the men and women make merry, under the watchful eye of Hrothgar and his queen, Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn). However, the hall is also a dark place, as it is attacked by a monster named Grendel (Crispin Glover). No man, not even Hrothgar’s champion, Unferth (John Malkovich) can defeat Grendel. Having heard of this problem, Beowulf (Ray Winstone), along with his sidekick Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson) and their men, travels from Geatland (Sweden) to aid Hrothgar. Arriving at the mead hall, Beowulf promises to defeat Grendel. And, following an epic battle, he does so. But, Beowulf doesn’t realize that Grendel’s Mother (Angelina Jolie) poses an even greater threat.

As noted above, The Polar Express left many viewers cold due to the animation process (I remember hearing the word "zombies" many times when the characters were described). Also, the story as a whole wasn't that great. Zemeckis took a 32-page picture book and stretched it into a 99-minute movie which really dragged at times. What would he do with an ancient poem which is incredibly long and inscrutable at times? Given those issues, I approached Beowulf very hesitantly, I was pleasantly surprised by how engrossing and entertaining the movie is.

First things first -- there have been significant improvements in the animation. In The Polar Express, there was something about the character's eyes which simply didn't look right, and it gave them a "dead" look. While the visuals aren't exactly perfect in Beowulf, the eyes look much better and to say that the animation is photo-realistic would be an understatement. One has no problem "seeing" the actor who plays each role. When we look at the old and obese Hrothgar, we can still clearly make out the features of Anthony Hopkins. Some shots look so realistic that they don't resemble animation. The improvement in animation has given the characters a better range of emotions. While they still don't feel "real", they're real enough that we want to learn more about these people and see where the story goes. There is a nice amount of suspense before Grendel attacks and the design of Grendel is very creative. Some of the movements are still jerky and some scenes don't look any better than the cut-scenes from a video game, but overall, the animation is very well done.

However, the animation is only the tip of the iceberg here. I've always found the Beowulf story interesting, but I can remember reading it in high school and the ancient text is difficult to get through. So what a surprise that Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary were able to create such a coherent and cohesive action-adventure film from the original story. I honestly hadn't expected much from Beowulf but within minutes, I found myself involved in the story. Gaiman and Avary admit that they've taken some liberties with the original tale, but their additions have created some very compelling (and logical) plot twists. Also, they've changed the third act of the story, which originally had Beowulf returning to his native land -- this would have probably felt like a different movie. There's no denying that every character in the piece is a stereotype, but the way in which the story moves along helps to overcome this.

Is Beowulf a glimpse into the future of movies? I don't know, but it certainly proves that one can make a good action/fantasy film utilizing motion-capture animation. The visuals look good and the story is surprisingly deep. Being a traditionalist, I think that I would have preferred to see this done in live-action, but given the lack of animated films aimed at adults these days, Beowulf is certainly a welcome distraction. But I still have one question: why fight naked?

Beowulf strips down and gets violent on DVD courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. The film has come to DVD in two separate releases, one the PG-13 cut and the other an unrated cut, which runs only one minute longer. (Still, the film contains a wealth of material which isn't appropriate for children.) The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. I can only assume that this transfer was taken from a digital source, as it looks very good. The picture is sharp and clear, showing no grain or defects from the source material. This is a dark film, but the image is never overly dark. The colors look very good, especially the glowing gold effects. I didn't detect any overt artifacting or video noise. The DVD has a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The track brings us a very nice auditory experience. Stereo effects and surround sound are in abundance here, as are subwoofer effects during the fight scenes. Simply listen to the Grendel attack to get a good idea of the sound design on the film.

The Beowulf Director's Cut DVD contains a stable of bonus features, most of which aren't found on the standard version. "A Hero's Journey: The Making of Beowulf" (24 minutes) is comprised of on-set footage, allowing us to see how the film was actually shot. We see the actors on-stage in their odd suits, and we get examples of how their movements are translated into the 3-D animation. This gives us a good sense of how much of the animation was actually performed by the actors. "Beasts of Burden: Designing the Creatures of Beowulf" (7 minutes) contains interviews with the artists who brought Beowulf, Beowulf's Mother, and the dragon to life. There are many examples of concept art and models. In "The Origins of Beowulf" (5 minutes) Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary discuss the history of the story and the liberties which were taken in their adaptation. "Creating the Ultimate Beowulf" (2 minutes) examines the concept of Beowulf and how actor Ray Winstone fits into it. "The Art of Beowulf" (5 minutes) has Zemeckis and art director Doug Chang talking about the look of the film and their desire to create the ultimate fantasy film. The DVD contains 6 DELETED SCENES which run about 10 minutes. They feature incomplete animation. These are mostly dialogue scenes and don't introduce any new ideas. Compared to the finished film, this incomplete animation is hard to watch. The final extra is the THEATRICAL TRAILER for Beowulf, which is letterboxed at 2.35:1 and is 16 x 9.

On July 29, 2008, Paramount Home Entertainment also brought Beowulf to Blu-ray Disc.  The film is letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 30 Mbps.  The image looks incredible, as it is strikingly sharp and clear.  There is no grain here, nor are there any defects from the source material.  The clarity of the image truly enhances the realistic lighting of the film, allowing the dark scenes to be dark, but not too dark.  The colors look great as well, especially brighter colors which leap out from the dark backgrounds.  The image is highly detailed, allowing us to see the intricacies of the CGI work.  I spotted no video noise or distortion here.  The Disc carries a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 3.0 Mbps.  The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects.  This track provides a nice accompaniment to the visuals, as the stereo effects and surround effects are good.  The stereo effects are quite detailed and match the on-screen action.  During the action sequences, the surround effects, such as arrows passing by, really come to life.  The finale contains some very good examples of this.  However, I found the subwoofer effects to be somewhat weak.  When Grendel attacks and throws things around, we don't quite feel the power of the objects or people hitting the walls and floors.

The Beowulf Blu-ray Disc contains all of the extras found on the DVD, plus one new one.  "In the Volume" takes advantage of Blu-ray's Picture-in-Picture capabilities.  From the film's outset, this feature shows the actors (wearing their motion-capture sensors) acting out the movie.  Even more so than the other extras, this allows us to see how the motion-capture technique works and how the subtleties of the actors were carried over to the animation.

Review Copyright 2008 by Mike Long