Robert Zemeckis first brought his cutting-edged motion captured animation technology to the children-friendly "The Polar Express." This time around, Zemeckis delivers are more adult fantasy world by adapting the ancient and familiar poem Beowulf into a live action film that keeps the name "Beowulf," but alters the storyline and injects more gore and sexuality into the Old English poem. Zemeckis' vision keeps the heroic Beowulf as its primary character, but finds a way of making the unnamed character of Grendel's mother a pivotal recurring character in the cinematic adaptation of the poem and having "Beowulf" be not just about the heroic battles of its hero, but a means of having a realistically animated Angelina Jolie become a deadly siren who beds every king of Heorot.
Having been somewhat familiar with the poem Beowulf, I found myself slightly disappointed in Zemeckis' beautifully animated adaptation. Part of the allure of the Old English poem was in the three climactic battles between Beowulf and the creatures of evil. Grendel, Grendel's mother and the third and final battle between Beowulf and the dragon would have been plenty action for a full-length animated adventure. Knowing Hollywood's penchant for making everything louder and more bombastic, I expected the sea serpents Beowulf bragged about to be one of only a few additional combats that would have been added to the film to make it more crowd pleasing. I expected louder, but I didn't expect the strong sexual subplots of the film to be introduced.
More on the alterations to the story later, but for now here is a quick synopsis of the film. King Hrothgar (Sir Anthony Hopkins) is a drunken king who builds a merry hall to celebrate his ‘greatness' with song, dance and alcohol. His advisor Unferth (John Malkovich) and his queen Wealtheow (Robin Wright Penn) are at his sides when the demon Grendel (Crispin Glover) becomes perturbed at the commotion and unleashes a bloodbath of severed limbs and death to stop the signing. Hrothgar is forced to close his merry hall and send word that riches are to be bestowed upon any man that can bring an end to the monster Grendel's terror. The hero Beowulf (Ray Winstone) is not the first to answer Hrothgar's call for arms, but he is one of the more renowned and confident.
With his trusty friend Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson) at his side, Beowulf engages in a verbal argument with Unferth, but convinces the king that he is the man to rid Heorot of Grendel. Hrothgar promises a shiny gold chalice in the shape of a dragon to Beowulf if he can succeed in ridding the kingdom of Grendel. Spending the night in the hall, Beowulf has his men engage in loud song and cheering to summon the vicious monster to the hall. Beowulf strips himself of all clothing and defeats Grendel. This sets the hero into the ire of Grendel's demon mother (Angelina Jolie) and finds Beowulf making a pact with the demon that will sire a replacement son for Grendel and place Beowulf onto the throne. Years later, that son takes the form of a dragon and attacks Heorot.
All evil that presents itself in the film inflicts itself on those that have slept with Angelina Jolie. Every king has been unfaithful to his queen and seemingly earned their place on the throne by first lying in Jolie's bed. There is a tremendous amount of time and computer animation in the film spent on the topic of sex and it's either Jolie's character or one of Beowulf's men looking to engage in adult swordplay. Zemeckis' adaptation of Beowulf seems less concerned with the heroic and legendary battles of its hero, but the fact that they have an animated and mostly nude Angelina Jolie and that the big reward in the film is not in defeating a beast, but injecting the thoughts of sex with Jolie into the minds of its audience.
The film does have three ‘battle scenes' where Beowulf engages in the heroic action that I had initially expected the film to focus around. Beowulf's inflated tale of dueling with sea serpents is the first such sequence after the very nicely done attack by Grendel on Heorot. This sequence wasn't overly engaging, but the second appearance of Grendel was the type of action I had anticipated; although I didn't expect the battle scene to be a string of sight gags to hide Beowulf's naked ‘member.' That sort of thing worked for Austin Powers, but didn't seem fit for Beowulf. The only swordplay against Grendel's mother resulted in the child of the third and final combat scene, which was the most impressive action sequence in the film.
A third selling point to the sexuality of Angelina Jolie and the classic tale of Beowulf is the computer generated animation used by Robert Zemeckis. Instead of having everything generated in computers, the director has his actors perform their roles and the information is fed into a motion-capture program and results in convincing animation. When I had first seen this technique in "The Polar Express," I was mortified by the frightening facial expressions of the animated creations. Their eyes were as soulless as death. This second film by Zemeckis features more genuine facial expressions and the eyes work far more convincingly. The animation of "Beowulf" is truly a sight to see. It is detailed and gorgous. Clothing, animations and scenery are as good as I've seen in any computer animated film and for me, the look of the film is what I enjoyed the most.
The voice talent is a strong collection of actors. Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie are easily the more recognizable talents and John Malkovich is another very familiar voice. The beast Grendel is voiced by Crispin Glover. This is a start contrast to the role in which Glover is most associated with; that of George McFly from "Back to the Future." Brendan Gleeson and Robin Penn Wright should be familiar to most as well. The actors brought life to their roles and I particularly enjoyed the work done by Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich, although the facial animations on Malkovich's character were the only ones that reminded me of the creepiness from "The Polar Express." This is a very good cast and "Beowulf" is unique in having the actors' likeness appear in their characters. Jolie's character is almost a doppelganger for the leading lady and I remember first seeing this trailer and thinking it was a cheesy looking live action film.
I liked "Beowulf" well enough and thought it was a more-than-passable animated film. It wasn't nearly as epic as it could have been and I feel the film would have been more interesting had they kept to the source material. However, the filmmakers intended to give depth to the story by purporting that Beowulf did not slay Grendel's mother, but instead sired the demon that ultimately led to Beowulf's death. These changes by scribe Roger Avary also implicated that Hrothgar is the father of Grendel. All of this ‘who slept with who' and ‘who is the father of who' business diluted the true nature of the original poem and lessened the epic feel that the animated adaptation of Beowulf could have had. I didn't like the story changes presented in the film, but I enjoyed the look of the picture and considering the story was half faithful to the original poem, there was enough of the original poem in the film to keep me interested.
"Beowulf" is an incredible looking animated film and this digital-to-digital conversion looks absolutely stunning on DVD. Through an upconvert player, "Beowulf" could be easily passed as being true high definition with its incredibly detailed textures and striking visuals. Clothing, stonework, wood and water all exhibit strong granular detailing and I must admit that I cannot wait to see how this film looks on HD-DVD, because it impressed the hell out of me on DVD. Colors were a little more muted than I had expected. I seem to remember stronger coloring in the trailer, but Zemeckis and company have chosen to give the film a ‘historic' hue with rich, but muted colors that are more true to the Bronze Age than the Toy Story Age. Blues, reds and golds do stand out at times, but I wasn't expecting the palette presented in the final product. Black levels were strong and the film showed very good shadow detail during the dark fight scenes with Grendel. There is also an amount of artificial grain injected into the film to help hide the fact it is an animated picture. The film is presented in an anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio and is clean and completely free of any flaws that I could spot.
Paramount provides "Beowulf" with English, French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. The Dolby Digital mix is both aggressive and enveloping. Even during the calmest moments in the film, there are plenty of ambient sounds to be heard. The front channels present the metallic clanging of chains and swords and the gentle sound of wind and water. The .1 LFE channel exhibits very strong bass and the rear surrounds are used effectively throughout the film. Pixar has created a few absolutely stunning sounding films, but Zemeckis is certainly giving them a run for their money with this creation. The musical score by veteran composer Alan Silvestri is strong and powerfully emanates from all six channels. Dialogue is nicely contained in the center channel for much of the film, but does present directional conversations between the left and right speakers as well. It works to nice effect and showcases how cleanly the film pans between channels and uses direction to great effect.
The Director's Cut of "Beowulf" contains a little more gore than the theatrical release, but also a few nice supplements. The first page of the "Special Features" menu contains four featurettes pertaining to the film. The first, A Hero's Journey: The Making of Beowulf (23:55) gives a very good look at how the actors worked with technology to bring the motion-captured film to life. It is an honest look and Robert Zemeckis states right away that he doesn't want to remake the poem, but inject a new vision of the story complete with drinking, fighting and fornicating. You quickly find out that Ray Winstone is the actor who looks the least like his character and learn a lot of good information about the film. The Beasts of Burden: Designing the Creatures of Beowulf (6:55) is shorter, but gives a nice look at the artwork and designs for the film's beasties. The Origins of Beowulf (5:12) looks at the historical beginnings of the film and feels far more promotional than the first two featurettes. The final supplement on the front page, Creating the Ultimate Beowulf (1:59) is a slick and promotional mention of how Zemeckis wanted to create a bigger and more modern animated adaptation of the novel.
The second page of features is far shorter and far less impressive than what is contained on the first menu page. The first of three features is The Art of Beowulf (5:24). This short combines video snippets from the actual film and more talking-heads interviews with the director, producer and production designer and shows artwork and talks about how they wanted to create the ‘ultimate' look for the film. This was another decent little making-of vignette, but couldn't compare to the first and longest feature. The collection of six Deleted Scenes (10:09) are not completed in animation and very rough animatics. They are decent enough to view and fleshes out some of the characters in the film. The Theatrical Trailer and some Previews are also included.
Robert Zemeckis didn't set out to faithfully recreate the very old poem in which his latest animated film is based. I would have preferred if Zemeckis had remained a little more faithful and didn't particularly think the focus on sexual activity with Angelina Jolie's animated doppelganger did much to advance the storyline or add any depth to the story of "Beowulf." With an animated film, I wanted some more larger-than-life battles and not bedroom talk. But I digress and did find "Beowulf" was entertaining enough to warrant a viewing or two. While the film wasn't as impressive in story as I had hoped, it was a visual tour-de-force and showed what motion capture computer imagery is capable of. The DVD showcases the incredible visuals and contains a lively and strong soundtrack and some nice supplements. This is a nice package for a film that could have been more, but presents a different take on the epic poem Beowulf.