BEOWULF - Blu-ray review

The story contains plenty of action and great-looking graphics, but it hasn't much heart.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Although I don't care overly much for the movie itself, one could hardly fault its audiovisual quality. For the Blu-ray edition, as far as I can tell, Paramount's high-definition transfer of "Beowulf" looks close to the same as their HD DVD release some months earlier. The biggest differences in the new edition are that with Blu-ray's additional storage space practically all of the HD DVD's second disc of extras fit on one BD50, and the sound is now in Dolby TrueHD. So, if you're interested in the film, the video is just as good as ever, the audio is marginally improved, and there is the convenience of having everything on a single disc.

Anyway, as you know, director Robert Zemeckis seems fascinated by animation, as evidenced by "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "The Polar Express." Indeed, it is the success of the motion-capture process (or in older terms, "rotoscoping") in the latter film that seems to have inspired him to do "Beowulf," his 2007 animated adventure epic. The idea is to have live actors play the parts, then have computer animators capture their forms and actions, augmenting them further to produce a cartoon that looks almost but not quite real. I find the results look rather creepy looking, actually, but other people seem to enjoy this kind of thing, and the technique certainly frees up the filmmaker to create some elaborate special effects. Not that filmmakers couldn't do the same thing with ordinary CGI just as well or better, but, what the heck, if you have the toys, use them.

It's been many years since I last taught "Beowulf" in high school, so I'll let the folks at the "Encyclopedia Britannica" remind you of its history and importance: "Beowulf, a heroic poem, the highest achievement of Old English literature and the earliest European vernacular epic. Preserved in a single manuscript (Cotton Vitellius A XV) from c. 1000, it deals with events of the early 6th century and is believed to have been composed between 700 and 750. It did not appear in print until 1815. Although originally untitled, it was later named after the Scandinavian hero Beowulf, whose exploits and character provide its connecting theme. There is no evidence of a historical Beowulf, but some characters, sites, and events in the poem can be historically verified."

As I remember it, the original story involves a Danish King, Hrothgar, whose castle keeps getting plundered by a monstrous fellow named Grendel, who carries off Hrothgar's men and eats them. Enter Beowulf, a Scandinavian prince, who offers to rid Denmark of its problem. That night, with Beowulf sleeping in the castle, Grendel attacks again, but this time Beowulf is there and tears the creature's arm off, leaving him for dead. The next night, Grendel's mother, really ticked off, comes to avenge her son; and she's even more formidable than Grendel! She kills more of Hrothgar's warriors, and Beowulf goes after her. They fight in her underwater lair, Beowulf prevails, kills her, and eventually returns a victorious hero. At least, that's the part of the story I recall, the first half, which the movie manages to embroider quite a bit. Then, there is a second half, a little more hazy in my memory, about Beowulf in his old age fighting and slaying a fire-breathing dragon, the story ending with Beowulf's death and funeral.

Now, I hope nobody thinks I've ruined the tale by giving away too much of the plot. I think after the story's being around for more than thirteen hundred years and taught in practically every school system in Europe and America, most folks would already have a pretty good idea what it's about. In any case, the movie more or less follows the same narrative (with the notable exception of the monster's mother), and this Blu-ray Director's Cut adds a minute or two to the theatrical version, possibly more blood, gore, flesh, and sexuality. I don't know for sure, having never seen the theatrical version.

In addition to Zemeckis directing, Neil Gaiman ("Stardust") and Roger Avary ("Silent Hill") co-wrote the script, and Alan Silvestri ("The Polar Express," "Cast Away," "Contact," "Back to the Future") composed the music. So at least there were some pretty competent people involved with the production. You'd have thought they could do more to bring it to life, though.

As in the epic poem, the movie's plot begins in Denmark in 507 A.D. Well, OK, the 507 date is probably a guess on the filmmakers' part, but it's close enough. Grendel (Crispin Glover, disappearing behind the CGI makeup), a hideous, twenty-foot monster, terrorizes Hrothgar's castle (or Mead Hall), Heorot, during drunken revels, ripping Hrothgar's warriors apart, biting off their heads, and so forth. A generally nasty character. And Grendel's mother is a knockout demon (Angelina Jolie, showing plenty), who gets mighty upset when people mess with her son. Also in on the tale are old Hrothgar's beautiful young wife, Wealthow (Robin Penn Wright), and Hrothgar's snake of an advisor, Unferth (John Malkovich). Anyway, Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins, the only recognizable actor in the film) offers half the gold in his kingdom to anyone who can rid him of Grendel. Up steps Beowulf (Ray Winstone), who along with several fellow warriors including Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson), his closest friend, comes all the way down from the North lands to take him up on the reward.

Still, Beowulf says he's not in it for the money. "If we die," he proclaims, "it'll be for glory, not for gold." In legend, Beowulf was quite the good guy, a superhero for the ages. However, we also see him as more than a bit of a braggart, who insists upon fighting Grendel naked. Why? To give him a fair chance, naturally.

Zemeckis fills "Beowulf" with boisterous action intermixed with long, dull stretches of tedious dialogue and scenery. The director handles the action well enough, employing an appropriate amount of graphic violence in the process, yet he paces much of it too fast for its own good, with too many quick edits adding to a sense of delirium.

The motion-capture CGI animation renders many of the visuals strikingly attractive or despicably grotesque, making them fun to watch, if that were enough. But the movie is almost two hours long, and visual delights can sustain it only for so long. The characters do have a crisply detailed, three-dimensional quality to them, which is to the good, while at the same time they look rather waxen and artificial, which isn't. My reaction to the artwork was pretty much the same as it was to the animation in "The Polar Express"; namely, if you're going to go to all the trouble of having live actors play the parts, why animate them? Why not have just let them play the parts, period? Perhaps Ray Winstone answers this question best when he explains in one of the bonus features that the animators were able to make him look a lot better than he is in real life. Yeah, so? The filmmakers couldn't find a real-life buff actor for the part, even if they used Winstone's voice for him?

Here's the biggest problem: The story contains plenty of action and great-looking graphics, but it hasn't much heart. Blame that, I suppose, on the original source material. Beyond the spectacle and the fighting, there isn't much in the way of human interaction we can latch onto.

It's only in the movie's second half, the part of the original story that is fuzzy in my memory, that it seems to come to life, that it begins to show any depth of feeling or elicits any sympathy for the main character. Nevertheless, it is also in the second half that the filmmakers begin to take greater liberties with their interpretation of events because what goes on here doesn't add up to my vague memories of the story. I guess the filmmakers concluded that there simply wasn't enough material in the old epic to justify an entire movie, so they added some elements of their own. Fair enough.

Therefore, what we get in "Beowulf" is visually fascinating yet emotionally frustrating, action-filled yet oddly dull, colorful yet flat. Thank heaven for high definition picture and sound because they are the factors that save the day, depending on how long the movie can entertain you with its eye and ear candy alone.

As I said earlier, this transfer looks about the same as the studio's previous high-def release on HD DVD, which was already plenty good. We have come to depend upon excellent high-definition transfers of CGI animated creations, and "Beowulf" doesn't disappoint. It's terrific. Paramount's MPEG4/AVC, BD50, 1080p, Blu-ray reproduction (in the movie's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio) comes across with all the exacting detail and astonishing colors one might expect--rich, deep, and luxuriant, even in the darker, interior scenes. If you liked the look, feel, and sound of "The Polar Express," you'll like everything you see and hear in "Beowulf." The movie is among the most opulent, luxuriant, plushly textured, and minutely detailed animated films you'll find.

Critics like me questioned Paramount for offering only a Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio track on the HD DVD, and this time they provide lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1. Again, it might be the extra disc space. The sound is a trifle smoother now, and it continues to display good clarity, a wide dynamic range, strong impact, and formidable deep bass. What's more, it has some fine surround effects in its combat sequences, with its longboats, with its thunder, and with its rain all around. If anything, though, the soundtrack is still too rambunctious, too loud, too dynamic, and, at least in a few places, too overbearing for its own good. Nevertheless, with TrueHD's polished response, it all goes down pleasantly enough.

This Blu-ray Director's Cut edition contains about the same bonus items found on the studio's two-disc HD DVD edition. The first item, "Beowulf in the Volume," is a picture-in-picture affair that offers behind-the-scenes information via small screen inserts while the regular movie is playing. The inserts contain mainly shots of the actors and storyboards before the studio artists applied the CGI and motion-capture animation. I found that it got old fast.

Next up is a whole passel of extra material, all of it in high definition. Things here begin with a documentary, "A Hero's Journey: The Making of Beowulf," twenty-four minutes, with an optional interactive feature that allows for additional trivia captions and short featurettes. Next up is "The Journey Continues," twenty-one minutes of the behind-the-scenes featurettes included as an option on the previous documentary, with somewhat technical titles: "The Volume," "T Pose," "What is the E.O.G.?," "Lay of the Land," "Givin' Props," "Scanners," "Stunts and Rigs," "Plan of Attack," "Fight Me," and "Baby It's Cold Inside." Next up are featurettes with more descriptive and self-explanatory titles: "Beasts of Burden: Designing the Creatures of Beowulf," seven minutes; "The Origins of Beowulf," five minutes; "Creating the Ultimate Beowulf," two minutes; and "The Art of Beowulf," five minutes. Then, there are "A Conversation with Robert Zemeckis," about ten minutes with the director taking questions from USC students; eleven deleted scenes in rough, unfinished form; and a theatrical trailer. There's a lot of stuff here, but a lot of repetition, too.

Things conclude with fifteen scene selections but no chapter insert; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; English captions for the hearing impaired; pop-up menus; bookmarks; and a guideline of elapsed time.

Parting Shots:
Beyond the movie's admittedly glorious CGI visuals and Blu-ray's excellent audiovisual reproduction, the story of "Beowulf" itself seems rather empty, bereft of much humanity, excitement, tension, romance, or thrills. Still, you may find the glossy surface of the tale worth a look, especially in high def. Moreover, Zemeckis wants to make the story into more of a psychological allegory than the old bards probably intended. But who knows. Beowulf, after all, as "a man, fallible and flawed" might be what many viewers want.


Film Value