Background: State of the art animation is in a constant state of flux, technological advances being made all the time to improve the look and "feel" of shows we get to watch. Early methods in the field relied on large numbers of artists actually drawing cartoons a single frame at a time, this labor intensive process taking a great deal of time to produce moving images with a lot of personal character if not accuracy. Rotoscoping was then developed to speed things up, fostering a cottage industry propping up Ralph Bakshi for some time, others using his methods to a lesser degree but the process falling far short of the intended mark, leaving it to computer advances to pick up the old ways to make the images more fluid than ever before. Along came a variety of techniques in the interim that added some visual appeal, including computers that tracked a live human and drew him on a computer screen digitally, recently resulting in large scale movies such as The Polar Express by director Robert Zemeckis. Not content to sit on his laurels, the director continued to use his Hollywood clout and the result was a movie fashioned to surpass all efforts of the past with Beowulf: Director's Cut that I now look at in the Blu-Ray format.
Movie: Beowulf: Director's Cut is a tale that should be known by almost everyone in the western world given the fact that the source material is arguably the oldest written story coming out of northern Europe, previous editions such as Beowulf & Grendel released to far less fanfare but probably more accurate to the source material, a lengthy poem. The general story of the character is that Beowulf is a legendary hero in search of glory, seeking out a disfigured monster that took to attacking a nearby kingdom, killing it, its mother, and eventually a dragon many decades later in his twilight years. Since the poem was part of the rich oral history of the region, it changed over time as it was passed on, eventually to be written down by monks, the oldest copy of their version being about a thousand years old. The premise writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avy went with for this movie version was to make Beowulf (Ray Winstone) a deeply flawed man in search of glory to the detriment of all those around him. Lost is the real heroism of the fabled character in favor of showing his humanity, the director and rest of those associated with the movie holding the original poem in contempt (stating as much in the extras, repeatedly, as they went off to make this movie as different from the poem as they could figure in order to play to a modern audience). Even purist scholars of the text would admit that the versions changed over the years but the liberties taken this time were such that it was barely like the original at all.
That is not to say that the movie is without entertainment value though. Seeing the rowdy drunkards ripped to shreds by a disfigured monster three times their size was pretty cool as he attacked the great mead hall of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), interrupting their bawdy celebrations this time because they partied too loudly and it hurt his precious ears. Stated but not shown, many other heroes tried to dispatch the monster (Crispin Glover) too, all resulting in quick death for the losers which is meant to prop up Beowulf and his team as likely candidates for burial as the previous warriors. The arrival of Beowulf and his warriors is met with optimism by the king and most of his minions, only a shadowy character called Unferth (John Malkovich) willing to suggest this is the latest in a long line of losers about to die. Beowulf himself falls for queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn) and before long, proves his worthiness by fighting the monster au natural and without weapons (to ensure a "fair fight"). Beowulf sees most of his men killed horribly but fights without reservation, quickly figuring out the monsters weakness, severing the arm of the monster before he is declared victor of the battle. The king then points out there is another monster in the form of Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie), Beowulf seeking her out to kill as well. Things don't always go as planned and this is where the movie diverges furthest from the source material, a whole lot of liberties taken as Beowulf becomes king based on a lie, years later finding himself at the mercy of a dragon that tears apart his now huge kingdom. The hero fights it and with all sorts of bang for the visual buck like you get when spending $150 million bucks, the world is rid of heroes and monsters when all is done (sort of).
I could give you a bunch of pop psychology laden observations regarding why the makers of the film would tear down a heroic character to make him so base, so foul, and so...well, human just as the other changes speak more to them than the original text. The extras contain plenty for fans to explore though I would suggest that the hatred for the poem was reason enough to skip basing the movie on it and simply constructing a completely new universe to destroy. This was a very adult version of the tale complete with animated nudity, treachery, and even simulated sex but little as risqué as the parody laden Tripping the Rift that looked cartoonish but similar otherwise to this big budget venture. I'm sure that students will stupidly try to use this movie to skip reading the poem when studying it too, so if you're reading this review instead, be forewarned that your teacher will know (and you will be comparing them to Unferth by the time you get you incredibly low grade for cheating). As entertainment alone, the style of the show could not make up for the lack of substance so for me it merited a rating of Rent It as a one shot roller coaster ride than something you will go back to watch repeatedly but it serves best as material to show off the current state of the art more than something fun to appreciate.
Picture: Beowulf: Director's Cut was presented in a full 1080p resolution using the AVC codec with a bitrate hovering largely around the 25.5 Mbps mark and an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Unlike some animated films of the past, this was presented in a muted color, using a robust set of visuals that could be best described as looking like a series of paintings, furthering the graphic novel comparison some in the mainstream press were encouraged to run with when this came out in theaters. There was no grain this time and the slight improvement in facial expressions from the directors last such release (Polar Express) were noticed but hardly as giant a step forward as he suggested in the extras. It looked a lot like a modestly budgeted videogame effort most of the time, a few of the scenes weaker than others but the overall look about what I expected, the use of human actors in a giant "volume" (a room with dozens of cameras set up to record the action from all angles) allowing for a more expansive range of movements but nothing truly mimicking real live action in terms of the minute body language the format has yet to see. I did not notice compression artifacts or moiré effects here and the best way to accurately describe how this looks to someone that hasn't seen it is to say it looks much like a series of detailed paintings strung together, with lots more depth than animation shows tends to have. In short, if you are looking for a showcase movie to show off your system, you can hardly go wrong with this one in terms of how accurately it mirrors the theatrical release, my own reservations are with the technology behind it since they do not yet come close to all the nuances of real action.
Sound: The primary audio track was presented in English Dolby True HD 5.1 Surround with optional subtitles in English, Spanish or French. The lossless track was very aggressive, making me wonder if someone changed my settings since it was so loud in many portions of the film. The bitrate hovered in the 2.6 Mbps area as often as not, going much higher or lower as the aural elements needed, under the 48 kHz sampling rate these productions come with. There was a crispness to the material too, even when the music played so loudly that it should have covered it over, and the myriad of smaller elements (background noise, special audio effects, murmurs in the hall) seemed to be played up in the surround speakers more than integrated into the film as a whole. To me at least, louder does not always equal better, though I thought the clarity and directionality was so defined that only a completely fabricated (animated) movie could possibly provide such an "experience", for lack of a better term. I spot checked the 5.1 Dolby Digital Spanish and French tracks were nice too but neither came close to offering the subtlety of the primary, lossless, track.
Extras: Unlike most high definition releases of recent times, Beowulf provided a very nice bunch of extras for the dedicated film buff to appreciate. They were presented in high definition too, a crowd pleasing idea these days when the cheapest route is all too often followed. The first extra outside of the movie trailer that becomes evident is the Picture in Picture version of the movie where a lot of the behind the scenes footage and other extras would appear in a small bubble picture as the main feature played out. For the record, I hate this approach since the best material always comes during the best scenes and interrupts them, rarely adding anything that cannot be directly accessed in better planned releases. I tried it for awhile but stopped the experiment so if you want to go ahead and analyze the movie, go ahead. The best overall extra offered up was A Hero's Journey: The Making of Beowulf as it provided a wealth of clips by the cast and crew regarding what the movie was about and how it was made. It lasted nearly a half hour and provided me with a lot to think about regarding the way the source material was looked at by the creators of the movie (they hated it). I liked the deleted scenes (there were a bunch of them too) except that they were never finished and reminded me of outlines for what could have been included in the movie. There were then a bunch of related clips about the way the actors were digitized and the technical stuff behind the movie magic, the ten sub-categories called "The Volume," "T Pose," "What is the E.O.G.?," "Lay of the Land," "Givin' Props," "Scanners," "Stunts and Rigs," "Plan of Attack," "Fight Me," and "Baby, It's Cold Inside." A separate feature was based on the mythical creatures of the show called Beasts of Burden: Designing the Creatures of Beowulf where Grendel, the dragon, the sea monsters, and Grendel's mother. Next up was a short discussion regarding the Origins of Beowulf, a short on how they created the best protagonist using the performance capture technology without the limits of genetics (Ray Winstone given an upgrade thanks to the CGI), a longer bit on The Art of Beowulf, and an interview by some USC students that allowed Robert Zemeckis to expound upon what he was trying to accomplish, the text questions edited in during post production (he essentially repeated what he had said all over the other extras about the movie, a common theme I found out).
Final Thoughts: Beowulf: Director's Cut was simply the latest version of the tale updated with scores of wholesale changes and made on a huge scale by Hollywood powerhouse Robert Zemeckis that some people enjoyed a lot. Contrary to what some critics had suggested, the changes impacted the entire storyline on so many levels that aside from the "funny names" used by the characters and the use of modernized English language, this version was nothing akin to the richly woven tapestry of the admittedly difficult poem (at least in its oldest written version) but it was worth a look or two. There are many scholars that believe our sense of hero worship began thanks in large part to the poem, Beowulf being the archetype male hero who risks life and limb to defeat evil monsters impure of body and ill bred of heart so with all the comic book releases of late (The Dark Knight, The Incredible Hulk, The Invincible Iron Man, to name a few), it makes sense that the original hit the big screen in such a manner, my only wish was that the reworking of the material was not so wildly changed as to make it completely different from the epic poem that started it all. The extras and technical matters were superior to many such action movies finding their way to disc and you could do worse than checking this one out.