All right, kids. This ain't your grandpa's "Beowulf." Most everyone is familiar with the epic, Old English poem, if for no other reason than that it was required reading in their high school English class. While the poem has become something of a burden for most teenagers, it has all of the ingredients they have grown to savor in their blockbuster action flicks, including massive battles, graphic violence, and fantastic creatures. It is no wonder, then, that Robert Zemeckis, director of such imaginative crowd-pleasers as "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" and the "Back to the Future" series, should choose this for a big-screen outing. High school students across the country can rest assured that this retelling is definitely not what they have spent restless nights writing essays over. English teachers, beware, for all of the action and pizzazz have come at the expense of depth and substance.
In the kingdom of Denmark, King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) holds nightly celebrations of feasting and fornicating in his beloved mead-hall. Unfortunately, the sounds of music and chanting disturb Grendel (Crispin Glover), a hideously deformed creature of the swamps who makes his way to the mead-hall and viciously slaughters many of the guests. As luck would have it, a handsome young Geatsman named Beowulf (Ray Winstone) sails in with the intention of destroying the beast who terrorizes the royal court. He is promised a great treasure if he succeeds, though his eyes are set on Queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn), who refuses to lie with her husband because he once had an affair with Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie). Upon defeating the beast, Beowulf is hailed a hero by the Danes, but trouble brews when the monster's mother comes out for revenge.
I will go ahead and fess up to my utter nerdiness right now by saying that I actually enjoyed reading "Beowulf." Okay, so maybe I didn't enjoy it that much in high school, but it was better the second time around in college. Anyway, although it's been a few years, I remember enough to know that many liberties have been taken with the familiar story. For me, that is not a problem. I am no literary purist, and I must admit that some of the changes made, including the innovation of Hrothgar being Grendel's father, are quite fascinating. "Beowulf" is surely not easy to adapt for the screen, as there is little character development or plot structure in the poem. It is a tale that begs to be opened up for the screen, and its oral tradition is no doubt riddled with the input of countless storytellers. Screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary certainly have a fitting pedigree between them, with the beloved fantasy novel "Stardust" (Gaiman) and the wicked violence of "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction" (Avary) to their credits.
Unfortunately, this movie is an absolute failure of execution. Like Zemeckis' last directorial effort, 2004's "The Polar Express," "Beowulf" was filmed using motion-capture animation, with the movements of live actors digitally recorded and used to create the animated characters. As with the previous film, the results are a bit creepy. The anatomical detail of the characters is extraordinary, and at times they seem incredibly real. What digital technicians have not been able to perfect is the believable recreation of human emotions. Real as they may seem, the characters always come across as lifeless. It is akin to looking at wax figures, three-dimensional and exhaustively detailed, but soulless. While the motion capturing process can and has been put to exceptional use, often for fantastical characters like Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" or for stunts that would be difficult or dangerous for actors to perform, I have yet to be convinced of any practical reason why an entire cast of human characters should be created in this fashion. In addition to the simple fact that it looks strange, the lack of emotion on the characters' faces severely impedes the actors' performances. As valiant as their attempts may be, the performances just do not work when their voices are coming from such emotionally vacant faces.
Another problem is the wild alternation of tones throughout the film. Gaiman and Avary throw everything at us from sweeping drama to soap-opera bedhopping to bawdy sexual humor and self-referential anachronisms. It's as if the film is trying to be "The Lord of the Rings" and "Shrek" at the same time. Roger Ebert, who liked the film, posited that it was meant to be a satire, even comparing it to the work of Monty Python. While this is an interesting point, I must ultimately disagree with it. Even if I did view the film as a satire, I would still say that it has failed. Instead, it comes across as more of a pastiche of disconnected ideas that might have worked on paper, or even in early concept art, but together on the screen crash with a resounding thud. There is, for instance, the now-infamous battle between Grendel and a very naked Beowulf, whose full frontal nudity is strategically covered by objects and people in the foreground. Then there is Grendel's mother, who appears in the form of Angelina Jolie herself, complete with feet shaped like contemporary high heels. And then there's a fire-breathing dragon that can take the shape of a golden-skinned, nondescript young man who looks not unlike an Oscar statuette (perhaps this was Zemeckis' subtle FYC plea to the Academy?).
At the end of it all, if you take away the violence, the defiantly in-your-face nudity, and Angelina Jolie, you will find very little story underneath. While Zemeckis, Gaiman, and Avary have brought a cinematic vision to this oft-told tale, their additions amount to little more than excess padding rather than narrative development. The characters have little motivation for what they do, and the audience is thus denied proper identification with them. One major character commits suicide for no apparent reason at all other than to conveniently advance the story toward its third act. It's as if the creative team behind the film read the Cliffs Notes for "Beowulf," were excited by the action, and stretched it to feature length by adding what they believed to be on every high school boy's mind while sitting in English class: gore, sex, and Angelina Jolie.
Paramount's DVD transfer of "Beowulf" is predictably excellent. The film is presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen. Like most digital transfers of computer-animated films, this one is crisp and pristine. The detail is not lost, and the images pop off the screen with great clarity and realism. Colors are rendered beautifully. Contrast is fine, particularly in the frequent night scenes in the mead-hall, which are lit only by firelight.
The audio is available in Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in English, French, and Spanish. This is a solid presentation, with robust sound during the battle sequences. Ambience, weapons clashing, and screaming voices are balanced wonderfully with the music and spread effectively around the speakers for a dynamic experience, pitting you right in the middle of the action. The sound is free of hiss or pops and is delivered clearly. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also available.
The film has been released in an unrated director's cut, which is only one minute longer than the theatrical version. Having not seen the theatrical cut, I cannot give a full comparison, but from what I have read, the unrated version contains several alternate angles that showcase the graphic violence. One of these, I understand, involves Grendel biting off a man's head. This is seen vividly here while it occurs only in silhouette in the PG-13-rated cut. To quickly put inquiring minds at ease, the director's cut contains no unobstructed views of Beowulf's full frontal nudity!
Extras on this disc consist chiefly of short featurettes, beginning with "A Hero's Journey: The Making of Beowulf." Lasting 24 minutes, this gives us an enlightening look at the motion-capture process, with views of such cast members as Ray Winstone, Robin Wright Penn, Crispin Glover, and Anthony Hopkins playing their roles on a simulated set. I must admit that seeing this increased my appreciation for the medium, though I still don't think it works for a film in which the majority of the characters are human.
The rest of the featurettes are considerably shorter than the first, but they are generally in the same mold. "Beasts of Burden – Designing the Creatures of Beowulf," which lasts seven minutes, focuses on the creative designs for Grendel, his mother, and the dragon from the climactic battle. "The Origins of Beowulf" provides a five-minute discussion of the translation from poem to film with some good insight into how the writers chose to open it up. "Creating the Ultimate Beowulf" is the shortest of the bunch, at two minutes, and looks at the casting of Ray Winstone and the visual design of the character (who looks nothing like Winstone). The last featurette is the five-minute "The Art of Beowulf," which offers some nice views of the concept art and production design for the film.
Six deleted scenes follow, collectively lasting about 10 minutes. These are all featured in their early, animatics phase. Nevertheless, you can still get a pretty good idea of how they would have looked in the film. In general, these are an interesting set of outtakes, though their deletion is understandable. A theatrical trailer finishes things off.
Robert Zemeckis' film version of "Beowulf" will no doubt appeal to the high school kids who lack the patience and interest necessary for understanding the source material, but it is only a shallow translation. It breathes CGI life into the age-old story, but it lacks the depth and, for me at least, the sense of adventure of the epic poem. There is nothing wrong with taking a complex work of literature and making it more accessible to younger audiences. The mistake made with this film is that the makers seem to have created it with the mentality of those young viewers.