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HD DVD Review: Beowulf (Director’s Cut)

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Young students might not heed Alvy Singer’s advice in Annie Hall about not taking “any course where they make you read Beowulf” because Robert Zemeckis has delivered an exciting adventure epic that will likely draw some to the source; however, they better not rely on only seeing the movie before the big test because screenwriters Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman have altered the story a great deal.

Set in Denmark 507 A.D., the festivities of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and his subjects upset the monster Grendel (Crispin Glover). It storms into the celebration hall, literally tearing the place and the people apart. When challenged by the King, it pauses and then retreats. The King offers half his fortune to anyone who will kill Grendel. Beowulf (Ray Winstone) answers the call.

After regaling the people with a tale of fighting against massive sea serpents, he and his men prepare themselves. Being a man of great honor, he gets naked to fairly fight Grendel since the creature has no weapons. Grendel is drawn out and a great battle ensues with Beowulf triumphant. Grendel’s mother (Angelina Jolie), a water demon, seeks revenge for her loss. During the night, she kills all Beowulf’s men but leaves him alive, which seemed awfully convenient.

Beowulf goes to her lair and confronts her, but he ends up falling for her charms. She offers him power and glory. In exchange she wants a son to replace the one he took and the King’s chalice. She promises that as long as the chalice is in her possession, Beowulf will be safe. Beowulf returns with lies about defeating Grendel’s mother, but the King knows the truth. With no heirs, the King determines that Beowulf will be the new king, and then he proceeds to throw himself from castle.

Many years go by, and on the anniversary of Beowulf’s triumph over Grendel the King’s chalice reappears. Soon after, a dragon attacks, claiming it seeks its father. Beowulf tries to return the cup but it’s too late. The film closes with a great climax as Beowulf attempts to protect his people from the dragon.

Avary and Gaiman have made a number of alterations to Beowulf. While they do create a more cohesive whole out of the poem’s three major events in comparison, some of their choices completely alter the story. The most drastic is Beowulf’s character. In the poem, he is a hero in the classic tradition, but here he is a flawed man. For example, he kills Grendel’s mother. He doesn’t succumb to her charms and all that they offer. Fans of the poem may well be disappointed with the change, but the story does work as presented.

Zemeckis brings the tale of Beowulf to life with the motion capture technology he used in The Polar Express. Improvements have been made, although there are still moments where the combination of live action and CGI tricks the eye into not being sure what it sees. The characters look very much like their real-life counterparts, so much so at times it seems like it’s actually them, which takes the viewer out of the moment. The technology is great at creating huge scale and scope, and many scenes are jaw-droppingly gorgeous to witness. Unfortunately, there is still trouble capturing the little things like eyes.

HD DVD is the perfect format for the film.  The picture looks flawless throughout.  The colors are fantastic and the detail is stunning, Grendel's scales being a perfect illustration.  The 5.1 Surround is used to full advantage and immerses the viewer in the film. You'll find yourself ducking during the fight scenes.  Even though the format is dead, Beowulf is a must-have for those with the system.  It sets the bar for Best DVD of 2008 and is one you will pop in to impress your friends. 

The HD special features are excellent for anyone interested in the filmmaking process, especially the technical side. As impressive picture-in-picture display shows the scenes play out with the actors in the studio, except Jolie, rigged up so their movements could be caught by 240 receptors. Early effects footage and storyboard also appear.

“A Hero’s Journey: The Making of Beowulf” provides a better look at the cast and crew on set. They all have to approach their craft differently because of what the technology dictates. Different aspects of the film crew’s work can be accessed during this feature and in others.

Leading the charge is Zemeckis, who has an amazing amount to deal with as he attempts to create his vision. In one feature he sits down with USC students after the first 3D screening to answer questions. While Beowulf may not have equaled the Academy Award Best Picture nominees, Zemeckis is on display performing one of 2007’s best directing jobs without question.

About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS