Blame it on the dusty literature degree in my closet or my lingering love of epic poems, but "Beowulf" remains one of my favorite tales. Its characters are simple and its monsters abhorrently evil, but its language is ethereal despite its brutality. So it was with great trepidation and excitement that I tromped out to the theater to see director Robert Zemeckis' computer animated adaptation. Sure, I wanted more characterization than the ancient poem provided, but I still wanted to see a certain faithfulness to the original text. Honestly, I had lofty expectations.
When a lavish banquet is interrupted by a murderous beast named Grendel (voiced by Crispin Glover), King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) seals the blood-soaked dining hall and offers half the gold in his kingdom to any hero who can kill the monster. Answering this call to arms, a legendary hero named Beowulf (Ray Winstone) arrives and slays the creature. The kingdom celebrates until the monster's mother, a sultry, aquatic demon (Angelina Jolie), descends and kills Beowulf's men. The hero then sets out for revenge, ultimately discovering more than he anticipated in the cavernous dwelling of the siren.
After Beowulf returns with word that Grendel and its mother have been slain, Hrothgar declares that, upon his death, Beowulf should be crowned king and marry the Queen (Robin Wright-Penn). The film then jumps decades into the future, revealing Beowulf as king of a very prosperous kingdom. Unfortunately, mistakes from Beowulf's past come back to haunt him as a fire dragon begins to ravage the countryside. Beowulf has to muster his strength and fight another monster to preserve his legacy and save his kingdom.
Sound simple? Believe me, it's not. Writers Roger Avery and Neil Gaiman make several fascinating departures from the classic text, uniting the punctuated vignettes of the original epic by making Beowulf into the flawed hero in a classic tragedy. Grendel's family tree, Beowulf's encounter with Grendel's mother, and the origins of the fire dragon have been drastically changed. More importantly, Beowulf is no longer a confident braggart, but rather a man wrapped in his own lies and exaggerations. He seems to believe he won't be respected if his tale isn't grand enough, and seem to resort to deception more often than the creatures he so mercilessly dispatches. Surprisingly, these changes work extremely well, allowing the filmmakers to deconstruct Beowulf as a character while exploring the contrast between truth and legend.
Unlike the grim and gritty realist take on the poem found in 'Beowulf & Grendel,' Zemeckis expands the fantastical elements of the story even further -- Grendel is now a tormented behemoth, his mother is a seductive siren, and the fire dragon is a shape-shifting demon with revenge in his heart. Even so, these alterations never neuter the beasts, but rather make them more threatening than they've been before. Grendel's rage is no longer animalistic, his mother's attack isn't a simplistic response, and the fire dragon isn't merely a creature of chance.
If anything, Zemeckis's 'Beowulf' manages to fill in the gaps that have allowed people to peg this epic poem as an irrelevant tale of mythological heroes and monsters. By deftly humanizing the protagonists and antagonists, the struggles between the men and monsters have a lasting psychological relevance. As such, the story becomes an allegory for the misunderstandings and miscommunications that have plagued real-world conflicts throughout history. 'Beowulf' emerges as a tale of pride that forces a seemingly impervious hero to come to terms with his own fallacies and inadequacies. Each time Beowulf is confronted by the truth of his decisions, his face reflects his shame. His ability to overcome that shame makes his actions more heroic than if we were simply portrayed as a classic mythological hero.
Unfortunately, I still have a few major issues with specific design hiccups that yanked me out of the experience. To start, Grendel's final look just doesn't sit well with me. I appreciate the representation of unbearable suffering in his gnarled form, but I think his rubbery face and clumsy strides rob his attacks of their sheer horror. More troublesome are several 'Austin Power'-style gags Zemeckis uses to cloak Beowulf's nudity in his fight with Grendel -- a dropped sword, a cloud of smoke, and plenty of conveniently placed forearms are cheap and laughable tricks that interrupt the tone of the film. If Beowulf decides to face Grendel's mother in a pair of boxer-briefed loincloths, why resort to comical cover-ups in the hero's showdown with Grendel?
Worst of all, Zemeckis's motion captured faces lack the nuanced expressiveness of his cast's live-action performances. The PiP feature included on this HD DVD release reveals dozens of these subtle shortcomings. Robin Wright-Penn is more haunting and effective in person, Anthony Hopkins uses his eyes more than the animators could capture, and Ray Winstone imbues Beowulf with more visual vulnerability than the stoic hero who appears on screen. I found myself growing more and more disenchanted with the animation -- by the end of the film, it was clear that Zemeckis's vision would have been better realized if 'Beowulf' had been shot as a live action epic in the vein of 'The Lord of the Rings.'
'Beowulf' isn't a perfect film by any means, but it is an exceptionally interesting retelling of a classic epic poem. I really found myself getting into the complexities of the tale and the manner in which Avery and Gaiman reworked the central characters. Zemeckis's computer animation techniques still have a long way to go before he can capture all of the facial subtleties of live-action performances, but the CGI does provides plenty of thrilling action scenes and battle sequences. In the end, 'Beowulf' is as flawed as its hero, but it's still worth the investment of your time.
Note that this HD DVD edition contains the "Director's Cut" of 'Beowulf.' It's the same length as the theatrical cut, but packs in a noticeably elevated level of blood and gore. Personally, I prefer the "Director's Cut" simply because it doesn't pull as many punches, but it doesn't make a significant difference in the story itself.
Straight from the digital source, Paramount has put together a bold, crisp 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that is, by my estimation, flawless. The palette simmers with warm golds and soft oranges, leaving skintones intentionally bronzed in firelight and quite naturalistic beneath cloudy skies. The colors are never overwhelming, but lend a certain otherworldliness to the creatures that fill the tale. Contrast is dead on and blacks are deep without leaving much to the imagination -- Hrothgar's dark kingdom is teeming with subtle details in the shadows, and delineation is exactly as I remember it in the theater. Want to be impressed? Skip to the scene where Grendel's mother confronts Beowulf and scan the corpses and trinkets discarded throughout the cave. Pay particular attention to the individual, phosphorescent dots in the water that shoot outward with each of the hero's steps. Then head for the fire dragon attack and note the individual scales, the teeth, and the crumbling debris from the castle walls.
Best of all, there isn't a hint of artifacting, noise, or compression issues to hinder the proceedings -- I didn't even spot significant color banding despite the fact that some scenes take place underwater and others beneath gray skies. All in all, this is a spectacular, reference quality transfer that makes for a great demo disc.
Pound for pound, the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 surround track included on the HD DVD edition of 'Beowulf' is out for blood. Dynamics literally shake the room with powerful LFE support, booming low-end thooms, and crystal clear treble tones. From the opening credits, the '300'-esque soundtrack hit me square in the chest and refused to relent -- by the time Beowulf found himself fighting sea monsters in the midst of a storm, I was convinced this mix could do no wrong. Rear support was shockingly aggressive and provided some of the most involving immersive qualities I've encountered in a soundfield. Listen to Grendel's initial attack -- soldiers are flung across the room, chairs shatter and skitter across the floor, and the creature's screams echo around the hall perfectly. Better still, head for the scene in which the fire dragon attacks and pay attention to his thunderous wings, the roar of his flames, and the cries of his victims. I went back and watched this sequence two times just to enjoy the audio experience alone.
To top it all off, dialogue was crystal clear and nicely prioritized within the chaos. I didn't have problems deciphering lines or instinctually understanding the placement of every object and character in the soundfield. If I have any nitpick, it's that Paramount didn't see fit to up the ante with an uncompressed or TrueHD mix. Still, the DD Plus track is reference quality through and through, and an easy frontrunner for best HD audio in 2008.
'Beowulf' is being released simultaneously in three editions -- a single disc standard DVD, a single disc Unrated DVD, and a two disc Unrated HD DVD. The HD DVD retains all of the features that appear on both standard versions and presents them in full high definition. Paramount has even thrown in a massive helping of exclusive content (discussed in the next section) to sweeten the deal. The only thing noticeably absent from the supplemental package (both regular and exclusive) is an audio commentary from Robert Zemeckis -- a surprise considering how vocal he's become on the merits of his motion captured performances.
'Beowulf: The Director's Cut' is a thrilling animated actioner that expands the classic tale with intriguing additions to the story and the characters. Zemeckis's changes may not always work as intended, but the film soars more often than it stumbles. But regardless of your take on the film itself, the triple threat of a five-star video transfer, audio experience, and supplemental package makes for an incredibly impressive HD DVD release. It's a shame that the death of the HD DVD format will cause many fans to abandon this eleventh hour, technical masterpiece. Hopefully, 'Beowulf: The Director's Cut' will be one of the first titles announced by Paramount when they begin releasing Blu-ray discs later this year.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.