In Annie Hall, Woody Allen's Alvy Singer advises the title character, "Just don't take any course where they make you read Beowulf." It's a funny line, and one with which Robert Zemeckis makes no secret of agreeing. The film director hated reading Beowulf in junior high, but he still made a feature film of the Old English epic poem, on the strength of a screenplay adaptation by English author Neil Gaiman (Stardust) and American screenwriter Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction). It's easy to see why: it's an excellent script, and one that doesn't treat the source as gospel.
Though Zemeckis' performance-capture CGI film makes some major changes to the original story, the broad strokes remain. In 507 A.D. Denmark, King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and his people are breaking in the newly constructed mead hall Herot when the horrible monster Grendel (Crispin Glover) attacks. Hrothgar puts out the call for a hero, and the waves bring Beowulf (Ray Winstone), the greatest of the Geats, who confidently proclaims, "I've come to kill your monster." The confrontation with Grendel leads to another, with Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie). The sizeable third act picks up the story decades later, as now-King Beowulf must contend with a dragon threatening his land. Golden treasures, lusty wenches, and gory battle ensure that the prized audience of adolescent males of all ages will come to the party.
Gaiman and Avary conspire with Zemeckis to pimp this ride, but they show interest in the mythical underpinnings of the oldest written story in the English language. In a nod to oral tradition, Beowulf recounts his battle with sea monsters, illustrated in spectacular flashback. Many believe the story passed into English from oral tradition when a literate monk or monks wrote it down, and Gaiman and Avery make a convincing argument that the story's sex, violence, and language may well have been tempered in the translation. That's all well and good, but Zemeckis doesn't know when to quit. He does a lot of things right, but giving Grendel's mother organic high heels is not among them. That frankly stupid choice sticks out like a sore thumb, but on the whole the production design by Doug Chiang (influenced by the work of fantasy artist Frank Frazetta) dazzles, as concept art comes to life.
Though the performance-capture technology still has its limits in terms of giving full weight to an actor's performance, Beowulf has already leapt and bounded past Zemeckis' lifeless Polar Express. Many of the nuances of the performances by Hopkins, John Malkovich (as the unctuous Unferth), Brendan Gleeson (as a reimagined Wiglaf) and Robin Wright Penn (as Hrothgar's Queen Wealthow) come to the fore, and Winstone imbues a very different looking digital character (no, Winstone doesn't have a six-pack) with strong facial expression and physicality. More so than with The Polar Express, Beowulf makes sense: setting aside the investment in technology, this type of film has to be cheaper in the long run than a full-fledged Lord of the Rings-style production. I'd prefer the latter, but the performance-capture format gives Zemeckis ultimate control, catnip to a director whose signature is an impossible flying-through-the-air shot. (On the big-screen, Beowulf is further enhanced by 3D and IMAX presentations.)
Scholars have good points to make about how this Beowulf compromises for modern sensibilities the old-world character long considered a model of larger-than-life heroism. Beowulf as taught in schools has yet to get a proper film, but Gaiman and Avary's take is certainly a worthy cinematic adaptation, with interesting and provocative mythic ideas of its own, and suprisingly lyrical images to match. The key speech comes midway through the film, as a depressed, aged Beowulf tells his right-hand man, "We men are the monsters now. The time of heroes is dead, Wiglaf. The Christ-God has killed it, leaving humankind with nothing but weeping martyrs, fear, and shame."
The filmmakers position Beowulf to straddle the classical hero and the modern man: he's both a god among men (one soldier refers to "[his] kingdom, [his] power, [his] glory") and, by his own self-description, "fallible and flawed," a slave to his ambition and desire. His monstrous opponents are all foils that tease out a theme of the sins of the fathers revisited upon them—no one escapes the consequences of a life freely chosen.
Paramount's unrated Director's Cut of Beowulf previously saw the light of day on DVD and HD-DVD, but now it's on Blu-Ray, and lookin' good. The sharp and vibrant transfer is flawless, the result one anticipates from a brand-new film from an HD source, but we don't always get what we want...rest assured, this disc delivers in the image department. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track matches the image bit for bit, delivering a powerful soundscape you'll feel in your very bones, from Alan Silvestri's score to the crashing of waves to the crunching of skulls.
The most astonishing of the special features—all presented in glorious full HD—is the feature-length "In the Volume" Picture-in-Picture track. The track allows the viewer to see, for the entire film, video footage of the actors performing in their motion-capture suits and sensors. It's a surreal sight, to be sure, occasionally interrupted by animatic versions of wholly digitally created scenes. This feature alone offers incredible access and insight into the making of the film.
A fine companion piece is "A Hero's Journey: The Making of Beowulf" (23:57), which features interviewees too numerous to mention—the bulk of the cast and crew. This featurette is primarily constructed of footage that follows director Robert Zemeckis around and takes in the process of mo-cap performance and its use to create a final product; the last scenes feature Tom Hanks on a friendly set visit. One can (and should) watch this documentary in an Interactive Version with Pop-Up Trivia and additional branching featurettes accessed when prompted by a pop-up icon.
Those featurettes can also be accessed by the next item in the Bonus menu, called The Journey Continues (21:13 with "Play All" option): "The Volume" (2:22), "T-Pose Prep" (1:55), "What is E.O.G.?" (2:13), "Lay of the Land" (2:01), "Givin' Props" (2:09), "Scanners" (1:44), "Stunts and Rigs" (2:12), "Plan of Attack" (2:12), "Fight Me" (2:27) and "Baby, Its Cold Inside" (1:55).
"Beasts of Burden—Designing the Creatures of Beowulf" (6:56) is a pithy overview of each monster, with producer Steve Starkey, production designer Doug Chiang, Zemeckis, Crispin Glover, and screenwriters Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman. "The Origins of Beowulf" (5:13) acknowledges the changes made to the original poem, and the thinking behind those changes, as explained by Gaiman, Zemeckis, Starkey, and Avary. In "Creating the Ultimate Beowulf" (1:59), Starkey, Chiang, Zemeckis, and Ray Winstone discuss the character design and how motion capture freed Zemeckis to cast Winstone.
"The Art of Beowulf" (5:25) finds Zemeckis, Chiang, Gaiman, and Avary focusing on the design elements, with a generous sampling of production art. "A Conversation with Robert Zemeckis" (10:11), culled from a 2007 USC Q&A, gives a fascinating look at the director's headspace concerning motion-capture filmmaking.
Deleted Scenes (14:03 with "Play All" option) include "Grendel Runs Towards Herot" (:20), "Hrothgar Awakened by Unferth" (:55), "Scylding’s Watch Escorts Beowulf" (1:00), "Wealthow Shows Beowulf the Sundial" (1:46), "Beowulf Boasts to the People of Herot" (1:15), "Beowulf Hammers Grendel's Arm" (:17), "Celebration and Seduction" (2:17), "Wulfgar Greets Beowulf at the Stockade" (1:22), "Beowulf's Day Unferth Finds the Horn" (2:32), "Cain on the Barrows (Original)" (1:15), and "Cain on the Barrows (Alternate)" (1:00), chased by the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (1:57).
There's also an Easter Egg on this disc. To see the one-minute clip "A Coffee Break with John Malkovich," highlight "The Journey Continues" and press left on your remote. Then click on the dragon-horn icon to access the clip.
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