Robert Zemeckis was the driving force behind "The Polar Express," in which he explored new grounds in computer animation. Unlike the Pixar approach in which everything is created from scratch, essentially, by the skills of modelers, texture artists, animators and so forth, following their vision, much the way traditional animation did. Zemeckis' approach is slightly different. It is in essence the rotoscope approach to computer animation, using real live footage and real actors' performances to create the characters and animations in the film. Clearly, this approach yields very different results than the Pixar approach, but is it necessarily better?
"Beowulf" tells the traditional Nordic legend of Beowulf and Grendel from around 500B.C. The kingdom of Denmark is repeatedly visited by a monster called Grendel, killing everyone in sight and no one is able to put an end to the horrors. King Rothgar puts out a call to all heroes and promises the man who would kill the creature wealth and power beyond belief. Beowulf, the Viking, answers the call and manages to tear the creature limb from limb. But outraged and the murder, Grendel's mother now seeks revenge and once again, it is upon Beowulf to put an end to the destruction and horrors. But when he enters the mother's lair, he finds something very different than he expected. Instead of a monster, a tempting beauty awaits him with lures beyond imagination.
I have to be honest here. Neither "The Polar Express" nor "Beowulf" worked for me. Stemming from computer games originally, there is a term in the computer graphics industry that is called the Uncanny Valley. It describes a phenomenon that is unique to this field of artistry. With better technology it has become more and more possible to recreate a certain reality in the computer. Striving for this kind of photo realistic world, artists try to duplicate and mimic every detail, but in the end it is still just a synthesized look of the reality that surrounds us. We as humans have become incredibly attuned to our reality. Every subtlety in movement, every flicker in someone's eye, the refraction of light in water, the way trees sway in the wind, etc, are all experiences we are extremely familiar with. Unfortunately no matter how hard they try, these synthesized worlds that Zemeckis is creating in these films is never going to be the real thing. As a result we as humans, immediately pick out things that are wrong or awkward in the imagery. The seemingly dead eyes of all characters, the strange jolt of a movement, a missing wrinkle in a face, the list is endless. That is the Uncanny Valley. The film is trying too hard to be photorealistic and fails because we inevitably notice everything that is wrong with it instead of enjoying all that is right with it.
To put all this to a point, if "Beowulf" had been a live action movie it would probably have been fun. At least it had been more fun than it is now because at least the actors would have been cool and viewers wouldn't constantly be distracted by the wooden movements, their monotone expressions and their eyes would have had sparkle and life. Having said that however, as a live action movie, "Beowulf" would have a pretty boring affair because quite frankly the story is absolutely banal and could easily be told in a 30-minute short film. There's nothing going on really in the film and a live action movie would have made that clearly evident.
So, as I said before, "Beowulf" didn't do much for me. It is a nice technology demo and shows us what computer and video game intros will looks like in a year or two, but that's about it.
Paramount Home Entertainment has prepared a beautiful high definition transfer of the movie for this HD-DVD release, of course. Coming directly from the digital source, the transfer is pristine and without even the slightest flaw, and entirely without noise or grain. Colors are wonderfully rich and finely delineated, while blacks are deep and solid, creating good solid shadows that never break up. The high definition of the transfer ensures that every little texture detail remains intact and visible at any time throughout the presentation. No edge-enhancement is evident anywhere and the compression is also without flaws or problems of any sort.
The audio department presents itself with great Dolby Digital Plus language track that are making good use of the format's surround channels. As a result of the increased bitrate, details are always perfectly reproduced and the overall presentation has a wonderful clarity.
The disc is filled with bonus materials, all of which are essentially to telling the story how the film was made, the technology and the approach. To be frank, all these extras are actually more exciting and interesting than the movie itself. On the first disc you will find a picture-in-picture video commentary that discusses many of the details, anecdotes and technical implications of the production while you are watching the film. Subjects are always kept within the context of the current scenes so that viewing it gives you an additional layer of depth to the film.
On the second disc you will find a whole lot more supplements to dive into, such as deleted scenes and a fairly extensive "Making Of" featurette. All the other featurettes on the release, such as "Beasts Of Burden: Designing The Creatures Of Beowulf," "Creating The Ultimate Beowulf," and "The Art Of Beowulf" give you additional information and behind the scenes looks at the creation of this film.
One of the clear highlights of the release is the interview featurette "A Conversation With Robert Zemeckis" in which the director discusses in-depth his intentions and goals.
To me "Beowulf" is a new technology experiment, but not a whole lot more. It doesn't work as a movie despite the great voice cast and its entertainment value is really very limited. Your mileage may vary, of course, but to me, these pseudo-realistic computer animated movies are just a big waste of money, talent and time.