Judge Dan Mancini. Is. BEOWULF! Wait, that doesn't make any sense.
The sins of the fathers!—Unferth
After making its high definition debut in the now dead HD DVD format, director Robert Zemeckis's (Back to the Future) animated adaptation of the Old English epic poem every high schooler dreads having to read finds its way to Blu-ray.
Facts of the Case
In medieval Denmark, the famed mead hall of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs) is repeatedly attacked by a monstrous brute named Grendel (Crispin Glover, Back to the Future). Neither Hrothgar or his most fearsome thane Unferth (John Malkovich, Being John Malkovich) is able to defeat the creature. From across the sea come the hero Beowulf (Ray Winstone, Sexy Beast) and his ragtag collection of Geats. Beowulf thinks highly of himself, spinning tales of five-day swim contests and battles against giant sea monsters that Unferth openly doubts. But when Grendel attacks that night, Beowulf proves himself strong indeed, defeating the monster and severing its right arm.
Beowulf's defeat of Grendel leads to a battle with the monster's mother (Angelina Jolie, Girl, Interrupted). The beautiful water demon challenges our hero in ways he's never experienced, offering him the temptation of eternal fame and glory in exchange for his honor. Beowulf's actions forever change his life and the lives of all those around him.
It's no surprise that writer Neil Gaiman was drawn to a film adaptation of the Old English epic heroic poem Beowulf. From his novel American Gods to his Sandman comics, Gaiman has shown a singular interest in exploring and deconstructing the meaning and import of myths in human culture. His works are also fascinated with heroes at the end of their eras, on the verge of becoming anachronisms in a world that no longer needs them. And so Gaiman and co-screenwriter Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction) played on Beowulf's odd thematic blend of paganism and Christianity (the tale likely began as oral tradition in pre-Christian Europe, but wasn't written down until around the 8th century), placing their Beowulf in a pagan world hearing the first rumors of the mysterious Christ-God that will forever change their continent. The screenplay deconstructs the myth and presents Beowulf as a man whose time—"the time of heroes"—is drawing to a melancholy end. Examining the idea and import of mythology itself had the added benefit of freeing Gaiman and Avery from slavish loyalty to a poem that is both episodic (a problem for a movie) and light on character psychology, allowing them to follow the "Here's the (highly modernized) truth behind the myth" mode of storytelling (see Wolfgang Petersen's Troy).
Given these themes, the screenplay is surprisingly unromantic. If the movie is about the exit of Beowulf's era, Gaiman and Avary coolly invite it not to let the door hit it in the ass as it goes. The pagan culture exemplified by Beowulf and Hrothgar is shallow, false, nihilistic, and downright cruel. In the film's opening scene—a wild party in the great mead hall, Heorot—the bloated and dissipated King Hrothgar is drunk out of his mind and so vulgar that he revels in being spit on by his beautiful but put-upon queen, Wealthow. Worse yet, though seen as a hero-king by his thanes and subjects, Hrothgar's base appetites and lack of self-control, we come to learn, are the cause of the horror that plagues them in the form of the monstrous Grendel.
Beowulf's showdown with Grendel turns on a dime from rip-roaring action set piece (with the added comedy of Beowulf leaping around nude while various foreground objects always conveniently shield his manhood from our view) to stark tragedy as our hero proves himself needlessly cruel to a creature that is as pitiable as he is hateful. Beowulf's trailer-fodder exclamation as he wastes Grendel—"Mine is strength and lust and power! I. Am. Beowulf!"—is a perfect segue into his Act II face-off against Grendel's mother, whose illusory beauty makes a liability of the strength and vanity upon which Beowulf has come to rely. From this point on, Gaiman and Avary cleverly adhere to much of the structural landscape of the original poem, but create narrative connections out of whole cloth in order to further their enterprise of mythological deconstruction. It's the sort of thing that might irk purists, though it shouldn't. Myths like Beowulf are tailor-made for radical reinterpretation.
Somehow, though, all of the intelligence of Gaiman and Avary's script fails to completely satisfy in the final product. Beowulf is lesser than the sum of its parts. Zemeckis's obsession with motion-capture computer animation pays off in some truly spectacular action sequences (in particular, the technology proves ideal in creating Beowulf's battle against giant one-eyed sea monsters early on, as well as his fight to the death with a dragon at film's end), but it's not up to the task of carrying the actors' performances. The rubbery visages keep viewers at an emotional arm's length, always reminding us that we're seeing technology not people. Unfortunately, the supplements included on this disc indicate that Zemeckis was far more interested in his animation experiment than he was in telling a story. Gaiman and Avary's work suffers from his inattention to thematic nuance. Beowulf might have been a surprisingly intelligent high-concept masterpiece, instead it comes off as a novelty, a theme park ride of a movie that relies on gimmicks instead of substance (the periodic in-your-face shots designed for IMAX 3D exhibitions don't help matters).
Whatever its artistic faults, the movie's digital origin means it looks absolutely amazing on Blu-ray. I'd say the transfers of Pixar's Cars and Ratatouille as well as Dreamworks' Bee Movie are slightly more impressive than Beowulf, but only slightly. The 2.35:1, 1080p transfer creates creepy atmosphere with deep, rich black levels in the movie's many dark scenes. Fog and digitally-simulated soft-filter shots are perfectly realized without any sign of macroblocking or other digital artifacts. Colors are bold and vibrant during daylight scenes. Detail is crisp throughout.
The disc's TrueHD surround mix is demo quality. Dialogue is bold and clear, effects are well placed on the soundstage, and there's LFE aplenty.
In addition to the spectacular presentation of the feature, the disc contains a beefy slate of extras, all presented in high definition. A picture-in-picture option allows you to watch the feature along with production drawings, animatics, and the actors performing on the motion capture stage (called "the volume"). "A Hero's Journey: The Making of Beowulf" is a 24-minute behind-the-scenes feature. It can be viewed as-is or in an interactive mode that layers in branching featurettes with even more detailed information, nearly doubling the running time. "The Journey Continues" is a stand-alone presentation of the 10 featurettes available through the interactive mode of "A Hero's Journey." You can watch these featurettes individually, or string them together via a Play All option.
"Beasts of Burden" is a seven-minute featurette about the creature design. "The Origins of Beowulf" (5:13) provides some light background on the epic poem and its influence on everything from The Lord of the Rings to Star Wars. "Creating the Ultimate Beowulf" (1:59) is about the voice casting of Ray Winstone and the creation of the digital hero who doesn't physically resemble him one bit. "A Conversation with Robert Zemeckis" (10:11) is a director's Q&A held after a 3D exhibition of the film at USC.
Finally, there is a collection of 11 deleted and alternate scenes, and a theatrical trailer.
Beowulf is an odd failure. A popcorn movie with a script that's too literary for a popcorn movie, it might be a masterpiece if its cast of motion-capture homunculi were up to the task of fully reproducing the performances of its fine cast.
Guilty as charged.
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