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Paramount Home Video presents
"We men are the monsters now."
DVD ReviewFor some reason Beowulf has made quite a resurgence lately. There have been several new literary renditions including an acclaimed one by Seamus Heaney, Benjamin Bagby's stirring live performance of the poem, and Sturla Gunnarsson's unjustly-ignored Beowulf & Grendel just in the last few years. But none of them were quite as ambitious as Robert Zemeckis' motion-capture computer-generated extravaganza, from a script by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary. However, as this version indicates, ambition is not always for the best.
In fifth century Denmark, King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) has set up a new mead hall, Heorot, but the celebrations are disturbed by the rampage of a ghastly monster, Grendel (Crispin Glover), who slaughters a horde of the Danes. Hrothgar offers great wealth to any who can destroy the monster, and that summons is heeded by Beowulf (Ray Winstone) of the nearby Geats. Even if he is able to defeat the monster Grendel, there is still the monster's mother (Angelina Jolie) to deal with. Along the way, Beowulf discovers some dread secrets, and in his old age must at last face both a fire-breathing dragon and the sins of his youth.
While the screenplay offers some ingenious solutions to the problems inherent in the structure of the poem itself, possibly due, as Gaiman suggests, to the censoring of randy oral tradition by the monkish scribes. The uneasy coexistence of paganism and early Christianity evident in the poem does survive here, though the Christian god proves to be entirely as ineffective as Odin.), In the process of alteration, however, new difficulties are created. Most significant of these is that there's very little left of Beowulf as hero; instead he's converted into a tragic figure that unfortunately doesn't carry much audience sympathy thanks to his portrayal as a bully and a braggart. Winstone does manage to put a lot into the lead performance, however, giving Beowulf a vividness seldom seen in the various adaptations.
Alas, the same cannot be said for the rest of the members of the cast. The motion capture process used here just doesn't do this first-rate assemblage justice. In particular, we lose most of the facial expression that is so important to an actor, in favor of the waxy, static and immobile faces seen in Zemeckis' previous CG exercise, The Polar Express. This amateurish and half-finished appearance is in stark contrast to the often photo-realistic appearance of the "sets" and "props" and even the dragon. It's also quite obvious that the animators have never seen an actual horse move, making some action sequences totally laughable. The lack of expression hurts Jolie the least, since her demonic character is supposed to mysterious and cryptic. But when you have Hopkins, John Malkovich and Robin Wright Penn in the cast and you rob them of their expressions it's hardly worth the effort of casting them other than for the marquee value.
The highlight is the production design, which is frequently stunning. Heorot has a dark but lived-in reality, and Grendel, a gigantic flayed creature of misery is hideous indeed (though on occasion he slips into cartoonishness). The costuming and prop design is consistently excellent. One would like to call it a visual feast but the characters detract too much to make that recommendation in good faith. In addition, the temptation to make the "camera" swoop and move too fast is yielded to far too often to make this artistry rather than video game fodder. That's part of the problem; although Gaiman and Avary are trying to tell the story in a serious and relevant way, the production uses the language and technique of video games to cheapen the proceedings significantly. From the extras it's clear that Zemeckis has contempt for the source material, which is unfortunate. The first great classic of the English language deserves better.
Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: C+
Image Transfer Review: As is fairly typical for computer-generated imagery, Beowulf looks spectacular in HD, with the dimly-lit interiors of Heorot in particular looking great. There is modest edge enhancement visible on occasion, but there's good detail throughout and no hint of digital noise reduction. Perhaps the AVC loop filter was shut off, because this looks far better than most of Paramount's AVC output. Alas, it comes as HD DVD is about to ride into the sunset. Hopefully the quality will be preserved when this picture shifts to Blu-ray.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: The DD+ audio tracks have reasonably good impact and occasionally sharp directionality. The sequence in which the locked-up mead hall is reopened in particular has marvelous spatial presence and aural depth. Noise and hiss are nowhere to be heard, and dialogue is very crisp and clear throughout. Alan Silvestri's score, especially the trombones, sounds first rate. No complaints here, other than that lossless sound would have been nice.
Audio Transfer Grade: A
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 15 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
11 Deleted Scenes
The second disc includes a fairly standard "Making Of" documentary (23m:55s), which can be viewed in either a regular or an "interactive version" that includes popup trivia and the option to branch to eleven additional featurettes at appropriate points. That's kind of pointless, however, since the disc also includes those 11 featurettes under the heading The Journey Continues, with looks at the motion capture process, stunts and various other technical issues. These are, however, exclusive to the HD DVD. Beasts of Burden (6m:54s) takes a look at the design for Grendel, his mother and the dragon, with some attractive art. The Origins of Beowulf (5m:13s) is an interesting discussion of the challenges of adapting an alliterative poem to film, and owns up to certain major revisions that dramatic continuity made necessary. Creating the Ultimate Beowulf (1m:58s) is a far-too-brief look at how the 5'10" and pudgy Winstone was converted into a 6'6" buff Viking warrior. The Art of Beowulf (5m:23s) provides a peek at some of Doug Chiang's gorgeous concept art, which formed the solid basis for the visuals of the movie. Another exclusive to the HD DVD is A Conversation with Robert Zemeckis (10m:10s), in which he engages in a Q&A at USC. He tries to put as good a face as possible on the picture, emphasizing the flexibility and the additional time he was able to spend with the actors as a result of using motion capture rather than standard film. Wrapping up the package are 11 deleted scenes (which seem to be no more finished than animatics) and a trailer. Happily, Paramount chose to issue the disc with each and every extra in HD, and with English, French, and Spanish subtitles on both discs.
Extras Grade: A-
Final CommentsAmbitious yes, but seriously disappointing from both technical and thematic viewpoints. The transfer is excellent, though, and there are quite a few interesting and exclusive extras.
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