Judge David Johnson is ripper and tearer and and an avid Scrabble player.
Robert Zemeckis's kickass CGI-animated Viking epic is reborn on high-definition. Unfortunately, it's on a dead format, but if you've still got an HD DVD player kicking around, this is as good a way to bid farewell to the star-crossed disc as any.
Facts of the Case
Based on the epic poem of the same name, Beowulf expands on the age-old narrative and expands the story, characterization and thematic elements to fill 114 minutes worth of Hollywood blockbuster.
The age of heroes and myth is coming to and end, but it's not going down without a fight. A legendary monster named Grendel (Crispin Glover) is terrorizing the Danish countryside and a desperate king (Anthony Hopkins) puts out a call to adventurers to journey to this kingdom and rid him of the demon.
Beowulf (Ray Winstone, The Departed), sword-swinger extraordinaire and overall stud, answers the call with his band of warriors. What he finds is a country terrified of an ancient evil and as powerful and skilled a fighter as Beowulf is, the secret behind Grendel and his seductive demon-mother (Angelina Jolie, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) might be even too much for him to bear.
Beowulf rocks. As much a departure it is from the source material—and that might drive English teachers the world over nuts—and as much as Zemeckis apparently harbors a loathing for the original work (he states over and over again in the extras how boring he thought the poem was, a statement I vigorously disagree with), the film is an impressive feat. An all-you-can-eat-buffet for the eyes, laden with top-notch action sequences, impressive performances and complex themes (man unable to outrun his sins), this swashbuckling fantasy is absolutely worth checking out.
Winstone's got the perfect voice to match with the computer's rendering of Beowulf. At 5'10" and on the portly side, the guy is physically as far from the 6'6" Viking hero he portrays, but his acting chops and snarl are a terrific match. He's surrounded by top-notch performers in their own regard, though Angelina Jolie, as ludicrously shapely as she is in CGI form, never quite convinced me that she was anyone other than Angelina Jolie in shapely CGI form.
As good as the actors are, the major asset Beowulf has going for it is the amazing CGI animation. Zemeckis owned this script for ten years but could never get it green-lit because of the challenges a live-action adaptation would present. The motion-capture technology Zemeckis pioneered in the "dead-eyed" The Polar Express delivered an opportunity to realize Beowulf and the technique has been perfected with his second effort.
Gorgeously detailed, rich with color and some times shockingly life-like, the animation is among the most impressive I've ever seen. Driven by the actual performances of the actors, who are decked out in sensors and electrodes that transmit their physical movements to super-computers, the animated characters are stunning in their realism and fluidity. The creatures and set design that surround them are just as exceptionally rendered, beautiful to look at and bursting with creativity.
Beowulf is built for high-definition. The transfer (2.35:1, 1080p) is lush and vivid and truly brings the animation to life. Rich and detailed from frame to frame, the film's upgrade in visual quality on HD DVD is a stunner. As I watched this in the theatre, I continually thought "Man, I can't wait to see this in high-def," and this release does not disappoint. Everything benefits from the boosted clarity, but the sequence that will undoubtedly pop your eyeballs out is the dragon-fight finale. Already one of the most thrilling action set-pieces—animated or otherwise—I've seen, in its HD glory, the prolonged climactic dragon chase is true reference material for high-def neophytes.
Supplementing the sublime picture quality is a killer audio mix. Though lacking a lossless track, the Dolby Digital Plus mix is still a winner. The thundering score from Alan Silvestri will shake the fillings out of your teeth. Crank your system during Beowulf's Viking ship entrance; it's so aggressive and loud, you will likely want to order a sword immediately from the internet and run into the woods bellowing guttural howls and hacking at trees.
The two-disc release is feature-rich. Disc One includes a great picture-in-picture option that shows the pre-rendered and motion-capture footage running side-by-side in real-time with the feature. Disc Two sports a fine selection of making-of documentaries, starting with "A Hero's Journey," an extensive behind-the-scenes look at set design, the motion capture technology, the props and the performances. The interactive version of the documentary offers branching segments that delve deeper into specific aspect of the production. Three smaller featurettes look at creature design, the creation of Beowulf the character and the art of the film. Rounding out the set is an interview with Robert Zemeckis and a handful of deleted scenes (in their rough, simple-CGI state).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Okay, the elephant in the room. If you've seen Beowulf in IMAX 3D then anything other than that is a drop in viewing experience. As slick-looking as this transfer is, really it can't hold a candle to the awesomeness of 3D.
Inventive and exciting, Beowulf shines as a film and shines even brighter in high-definition.
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