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Beowulf: The Director's Cut (2007) (Blu-ray)
Paramount Home Entertainment / 2007 / 114 Minutes / Unrated
Street Date: July 29, 2008
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Reviewed by High-Def Digest Staff
Monday, August 04, 2008
Non-format specific portions of this review also appear in our HD DVD review of 'Beowulf: The Director's Cut.' as well as the Blu-ray review of 'Beowulf: Director's Cut (UK Import)'
Blame it on the dusty literature degree in my closet or a lingering fascination with ancient epic poems, but I get excited anytime a cinematic adaptation of "Beowulf" appears on the horizon. Even though its characters are simple and monsters deliciously evil, the tale relies on ethereal language and imagery to evoke the savage brutality of a forgotten age. So it was with great trepidation and anticipation that I tromped out to the theater to see director Robert Zemeckis' computer animated take on this beloved classic. I wanted the film to offer more characterization than the original text provided, but still retain a certain faithfulness to the poem's context and structure. Needless to say, I had lofty expectations.
'Beowulf' begins as a lavish banquet is interrupted by a murderous beast named Grendel (voiced by Crispin Glover). After the creature's attack, 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 to great fanfare, slays the malformed demon, and wins the accolades of the people. The entire kingdom celebrates until the monster's mother, a sultry, aquatic demon (Angelina Jolie), descends on the banquet hall and kills Beowulf's men. Seeking revenge, Beowulf tracks her to a cavernous lair where he faces temptation, a dangerous choice, and certain death.
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 reinterpreting Beowulf as a flawed, tragic hero. 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 isn't portrayed as a confident braggart, but as a man trapped by his pride and exaggerations. 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. These alterations don't neuter the beasts, but rather make them more threatening. 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 of the original myth. By humanizing the protagonists and antagonists, the struggles between the men and monsters have a lasting psychological relevance. 'Beowulf' emerges as a study 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 he 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 Blu-ray 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 Blu-ray edition contains the "Director's Cut" of 'Beowulf.' Even though it's the same length as the theatrical cut, it packs more blood and gore into its action sequences. While I personally prefer the DC since it doesn't pull any punches, the extra violence doesn't make a significant difference in the story itself.)
Straight from the digital source (and identical to the previously released HD DVD edition), Paramount has put together a 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 any hint of artifacting, noise, or compression issues that would hinder the proceedings -- I didn't even spot any significant color banding despite the fact that some scenes take place underwater and others beneath gray skies. 'Beowulf' offers a spectacular, reference quality transfer that makes this one a great demo disc.
Paramount's Blu-ray edition of 'Beowulf' includes a attention-grabbing Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track that, like the HD DVD Dolby Digital Plus mix before it, 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 refuses 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 is shockingly aggressive, crafting an involving soundfield and allowing listeners to immerse themselves in realistic environments (especially impressive since this is an animated film). 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. Want more? 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.
To top it all off, dialogue is crystal clear, effeciently distributed across the front channels, and naturally prioritized within the chaos. I didn't have problems deciphering lines or instinctually understanding the placement of every object and character in the soundfield. This is a reference quality track that outperforms the majority of animated audio mixes on the high-def market.
The Blu-ray edition of 'Beowulf' includes all of the features that appeared on February's HD DVD and standard DVD releases, and presents the content in high definition. Paramount has even thrown in a generous helping of exclusive content (discussed in the next section) to sweeten the pot. 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 been about the merits of motion captured performances.
- A Hero's Journey: The Making of Beowulf (HD, 24 minutes) -- This intriguing featurette begins as Zemeckis introduces the cast to the motion capture studio. He explains the technology, the interactive objects, and the process they should expect with the shoot. From there, a group of fly-on-the-wall cameras follow Winstone and crew as the motion capture devices are applied to their faces, as they interact on set, and as they experience Zemeckis's shooting method for the first time. The featurette even documents visits from writer (and comics legend) Neil Gaiman, actor Tom Hanks, and a few other surprise guests. The film's cast members are incredibly amicable in spite of the challenges and frustrations presented by the abnormal shoot and I found myself laughing quite a few times. This is an excellent behind-the-scenes featurette that thoroughly explores every aspect of the pre-animated production.
- Deleted Scenes (HD, 12 minutes) -- A collection of cuts, most of which are presented as unfinished animatics. I don't think any of the cuts would have enhanced the film or the story, but it's tough to tell when the animation hasn't been completed. Also of note, five of the deleted scenes are exclusive to the high-def releases of the film.
- Beasts of Burden: Designing the Creatures of Beowulf (HD, 7 minutes) -- Artist interviews, concept art, storyboards, and animatics are brought together to explore the creation of the sea serpents, the mermaid, Grendel, his mother, and the fire dragon. This featurette blazes by rather quickly, but it's certainly worth your time. It reveals just enough information to give a nice overview of the majority of the creature design decisions used in the film.
- The Origins of Beowulf (HD, 5 minutes) -- Writers Roger Avery and Neil Gaiman join Zemeckis in a discussion of the original story and their adaptation. They talk about the changes they made from the early text, the inferences they made about Grendel's family tree (as well as the origin of the fire dragon), and a major change they brought to Beowulf's encounter with Grendel's mother.
- Creating the Ultimate Beowulf (HD, 2 minutes) -- This featurette finally answers why Ray Winstone was cast in the film if Zemeckis's hero was meant to look like a completely different person. It's a bit too short, but it answered most of the questions I had and continued to help me appreciate the director's motivations and motion captured techniques.
- The Art of Beowulf (HD, 5 minutes) -- I really enjoyed this detailed look at the art direction in the film. It explores the sketches, concept art, models, color tests, and historical research that led to Beowulf's stylized palette.
- Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 minutes)
The exclusive content Paramount has put together for 'Beowulf' comes in a variety of flavors -- PiP features, interactive featurettes, and additional surprises, all presented in high definition.
- Beowulf In the Volume -- This intriguing video commentary places a Picture-in-Picture overlay in the bottom right corner of the film. As the movie plays, the small window displays storyboards, animatics, and, most interestingly, footage of the cast members recording their parts in a 25' by 25' motion capture studio. Strangely, the overlay disappears anytime Grendel's mother graces the screen -- since she appears as a nearly-nude demon in the film, I'm surprised Jolie took issue with her motion capture footage being used in the supplemental content.
The only major problem with this PiP presentation is that it serves as both a blessing and a curse to the film itself. On one hand, the motion capture footage showcases how much of the actors' expressiveness was retained and utilized by the animators. On the other hand, it shines an unforgiving light on the gap between the nuanced, live action performances and the animated end results.
- A Hero's Journey: Interactive Version (HD, 44 minutes) -- As an added bonus, this Blu-ray release has an interactive version of the main behind-the-scenes featurette. It provides interesting pop-up factoids and allows users to access a series of brief tech videos. In all, these videos comprise an additional 20 minutes of in-depth content. The mini-featurettes include "Volume," "EOG," "Sets," "Props," "Scanning," "Stunts," "The Attack," "Blocking," and "Crew Antics."
- The Journey Continues (HD, 20 minutes) -- Don't feel like sitting through the full behind-the-scenes featurette to access the mini-docs? This section of the disc allows you to dig through each one.
- A Conversation with Robert Zemeckis (HD, 10 minutes) -- A group of students from the University of Southern California toss questions at Zemeckis about the production. It's decent, but ultimately feels a bit repetitive since the director covers a lot of the material found elsewhere in the supplemental package.
For a quick, one-minute bonus called "A Coffee Break with John Malkovich," highlight "The Journey Continues" and press left on your remote. Click on the dragon-horn icon that appears to access the short. Thanks to both "Liqwid" and Jason Capps for the tip!
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'Beowulf: The Director's Cut' is a solid animated actioner that expands the classic tale with intriguing additions to the story and the characters. Zemeckis' changes and animation may not always work as intended, but the film soars more often than it stumbles. However, whether you love or hate the film itself, the triple threat of a gorgeous video transfer, powerful lossless audio track, and extensive supplemental package adds quite a bit of value to this Paramount release.
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