Beowulf is one of the oldest written stories known. The story began as a heroic tale passed from generation to generation only by word of mouth. Naturally there’s no way to know how much the story changed during those years of oral tradition. The author of the piece is unknown, and it is likely several persons contributed to the work. By the 8th Century an epic poem was written that forms the story as it is remembered today. Several translations have followed over the years, resulting in many variations of the story. This very impressive history makes Beowulf a natural to be filmed. There are so many versions that there is little worry about following a beloved canon. Second, the story is flourishing with wonderfully imaginative creatures that can now be savored ever so much more with the development of CG technology over the last 20 years. I’m honestly quite surprised that it has taken this long for this kind of a movie to find its way into release.
Writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary did quite a nice job of capturing the heroic splendor that was Beowulf. What little of the tale I remember was present in the film. The story itself is quite simple: The Kingdom of Hrothgar is threatened by the mutant creature Grendel (Glover). King Hrothgar (
From the very first image you will find that Beowulf is not an ordinary film. The movie was made using the very latest in motion capture, a process that allows the actors to perform their parts but the performance is painted over, if you will, by computer generated characters. If you’ve seen 300, the look is almost identical. The images are very stark and the process allows for visuals not possible in a more traditional shoot. The picture is often stunning, but unfortunately it really doesn’t take long for the style to overwhelm the substance. There are moments when the process distracts from an otherwise excellent film. It is the actors who suffer the most. A talented cast was assembled here, and I’m quite sure there were some rather marvelous performances given, but the process takes much of that away. The characters have little to no facial expression, so the only way to move the film along emotionally is through volume. For a rousing movement, Winstone must simply shout louder. We never read the determination in the character’s face. Limbs move in very blocky unnatural ways, making the whole affair look too much like a video game. A couple of scenes made me think I was watching Shrek. I understand there will be a lot of debate about this style. Some of you will scold me for not understanding the creative choice, which I do recognize; I’m merely saying for me it is distracting. The backgrounds and creatures are another story. It is here that the process truly shines. The “sets” are alive with detail and eye candy. The creatures are on par with anything since accomplished. But in the end it still looks like a video game running in demo mode. The film was also shot for a 3-D IMAX release. I hadn’t seen it, but you can see where some of the 3-D gags come in. There is an early moment involving a spear tip that was clearly intended for 3-D effect.
With everything they had working against them with the film’s unique style, I found the cast performed quite well. John Malkovich was absolutely perfect as Unferth, a member of the Court who is a bit skeptical of Beowulf’s boasts. He manages to make up for in his voice what he was unable to deliver in his face. Winstone was fine as Beowulf, but he was not as inspiring as one would hope for that character. Of course, the most hype for the film was the appearance of a “simulated” naked Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother. I was impressed that she also delivered more with her voice than I’m sure she has needed to in the past. She more perfectly filled the role than I would have guessed. I wrongly considered her casting to be more marketing than anything else, and of course it was a significant aspect, but she does hold her own in a sinister role.
Beowulf is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. When you consider that this is a completely digital product transferred onto a digital medium, you should expect a lot from this image. For the most part the DVD delivers. Colors in particular worked well for me. I loved the way the transfer handled dark reds. These colors gave me the closest thing to live action realism I could find. Detail was very nice. Black levels were not as strong as I had hoped, and I was disappointed in the average 5.5 mbps bit rate. This film required a 2 disc release so that one disc could be dedicated to the film itself. Artifacting was high, at times ruining an otherwise very sweet transfer.
Deleted Scenes: You get 10 minutes of unfinished deleted scenes. They don’t really add anything but are rather amusing to watch in their crude animation form. You hear dialogue but nobody’s lips move.
The Heroes Journey – The Making Of Beowulf: The process used on this film is certainly rather intriguing. This 22 minute feature gives you plenty of action from the soundstages where this motion capture work was done. You get to see the actors decked out in all of this equipment to allow their performance to be reproduced by the CG character in the actual film. You really don’t want to miss this.
Beasts Of Burden: The creatures of the film are remarkable, as I’ve noted. This rather short feature gives you a peak at their development and creation.
The Origins Of Beowulf : I’m a little surprised to see how uninspired producer Roger Zemeckis finds the source material. I don’t think there was a lot of respect for the original, and much of the praise that is given appears hollow to me.
The Art Of Beowulf: This is a 5 minute montage of paintings that served as conceptual art for the film.
This is an enjoyable film, but it is one many of you will have a hard time really getting into. It’s a fun two hours, but I found that not a lot of it stuck with me when it was over. I retained many of the visuals, of course, but little else sticks. It’s like they say about eating Chinese food. Watch Beowulf for two hours and an hour later you’re hungry for something else. I suggest you rent it and see how it sits with you first. Still, it is worth that first look; after all, “what we need here is a hero”.