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Set in a magical era veiled by the mists of time, replete with heroes and monsters, adventure and valor, gold and glory, one exceptional man emerges to save an ancient Danish kingdom from annihilation by an ungodly creature. After destroying the overpowering demon Grendel, Beowulf (Ray Winstone) incurs the undying wrath of the beast's ruthlessly seductive mother (Angelina Jolie), who will use any means possible to ensure revenge. The ensuing epic battle resonates throughout the ages, immortalizing the name of Beowulf.
For more about Beowulf and the Beowulf Blu-ray release, see Beowulf Blu-ray Review published by Martin Liebman on August 14, 2008 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Robin Wright Penn, Brendan Gleeson, Angelina Jolie
Director: Robert Zemeckis
» See full cast & crew
Beowulf Blu-ray Review
'Beowulf' features great visuals but it lacks a solid thematic foundation.
Reviewed by Martin Liebman, August 14, 2008
What we need is a hero.
Beowulf is the most recent cinematic take on the famed (or infamous, depending on whether you poll high school students or not) hero whose story is the oldest written tale in the English language, the story of a great hero, adventurer, and beast slayer. Certainly, this 2007 recounting of the story is the most ambitious yet, a groundbreaking film building on technology seen in The Polar Express (both films directed by Robert Zemeckis) but improving on it and offering audiences a film that is decidedly more violent, more frightening, and more awe-inspiring thanks to the impressive motion capture technology employed by the filmmakers. Unfortunately, Beowulf fails to surpass The Polar Express in one key area -- heart. Whereas audiences were taken aboard the magical train, bonded with the characters, and felt a part of the movie in Tom Hanks' Christmas tale, there is a cold, harsh divide between film and audience in Beowulf. The film fails to engender an emotional response save for a continuous bombardment of "wow" visuals and extravagant action sequences. The characters are distant and lifeless; they never seep into our consciousness to engender feelings of love or hate or anything in between. Instead, they're merely pawns in a special effects spectacle that is visually impressive and worth watching for everything but the story and the characters therein. When the credits begin to roll you likely will not care about anyone or anything in the story.
Beowulf tells the tale of the great King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins, Nixon) and the beast Grendel (Crispin Glover, The Doors) who wreaks havoc on King Hrothgar's kingdom. Grendel crashes a drunken party where Hrothgar's people indulge in every vice and fantasy available to them in A.D. 507 Denmark. Soon thereafter, his new hall now covered in the blood of his friends, the king receives the great Geat hero, Beowulf (Ray Winstone, The Departed), a warrior who vows to slay the creature and restore peace and order to Hrothgar's kingdom. Beowulf's journey throughout the film will take him to dazzling heights and desperate lows, through power and glory and agony, and into battles on land, sea, and air as he fulfills his destiny, whatever that may be.
As mentioned in the opening paragraph, there are two sides to Beowulf. One is the wondrous special effects that are not just a part of the film, they are the film. The other is the story itself, a classic tale re-envisioned that has its moments but plays second fiddle to the technology behind the film. Obviously, if you have seen the film, or even watched the preview, you know the film is a visual equivalent of a juicy 20 oz. prime rib, grilled to perfection and delicious down the last morsel. As great as the film looks, there is a lack of substance to the story that reduces that steak to a fast food, hours old cheeseburger that's still tasty enough and plenty satisfying, but not as succulent as you might have hoped. Like The Polar Express, there is an unsettling look to the characters, no doubt thanks to the rarity of seeing live action performances captured in this manner. The technology has certainly improved and will continue to do so, and much like Transformers, this is a groundbreaking effects film in its own right. At times, the effects are seamless. There were times when I could not tell if I was seeing the "real" Angelina Jolie or a motion captured, computer-generated edition. The perfection with which the performers are captured is uncanny, and regardless of the quality of the remainder of the film, Beowulf is an inspirational watch and a treat for fans of special effects who want to see boundaries pushed and broken.
As an admirer of the 2005 film Beowulf & Grendel, comparisons between the two films' takes on the tale were inevitable. I found Beowulf severely lacking. It failed to elicit an emotional response because I believe neither its narrative nor its characters achieved depth or breadth. The characters in Beowulf & Grendel, particularly Grendel, spoke to me like few characters in film have before. There, Grendel's palpable struggle -- to realize the differences between right and wrong despite the evil acts he performed -- offered insight into his confused emotional state. The simplicity of the filmmaking in the 2005 film showcased his isolation and desire to have the moral compass, which the audience realizes he possessed, to simply point him in the right direction. In this 2007 version of Beowulf, the character is reduced to a larger than life horror monstrosity with little in the way character development and not a hint of the qualities that made the character in the other film so powerful. That's fine, however, because each film takes its liberties with the original story and melds it to suit their wants and needs. I simply happen to admire the live action version of Beowulf and Grendel a great deal more than I do Beowulf, a film that offered action and special effects with no substance underneath.
Beowulf Blu-ray, Video Quality
Beowulf finally arrives on Blu-ray in an expectedly pristine 1080p, 2.35:1 framed transfer. What can I say? This disc is another top-notch effort from Paramount. Captured from live action via motion capture technology and digitally altered and placed into a completely digital world, the film is a pure rendition of what the animators created. Beowulf is extremely dark in nature, full of poorly lit rooms, various outdoor nighttime scenes, and dark, dank caverns. Nevertheless, the picture excels, featuring tremendous blacks, fantastic depth, and clarity that will leave you awestruck. There are some daytime, exterior sequences in the movie, and these sparkle, too. The film's climax features some of the finest picture quality we've yet seen on Blu-ray. The image is practically three-dimensional with extravagant colors, jaw-dropping gorgeous and intricate detail, and razor-sharp animation that's half a step away from looking real. As expected, detail is fantastic, and the digital artists and the motion capture technology leave nothing to the imagination. Look at Hrothgar's garb in chapter two the morning after the attack. Granted, it's all animated, so we expect it to look great, but nevertheless there is a fine texture, flow, and realism to the garment that looks like it was literally taken off a hangar and placed in the film. Likewise, facial detail is fantastic. One need look no further than to the scene where Beowulf arrives on shore, greeted by the tip of a spear in his face. Each stubble of facial hair, scar, pit, and blemish is revealed, and the image is as sharp as the tip of the spear inches from our hero's eye. Grendel looks disturbingly fabulous, too. Each of the boils, exposed muscles and tendons, and loose pieces of skin flapping in the wind, all appear meticulous and grotesquely perfect. As mentioned earlier, the line between reality and animation is sometimes blurred in certain shots, but the 1080p Blu-ray transfer offers an incredible viewing experience.
Beowulf Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Paramount doesn't stop at perfect video for this Blu-ray edition of Beowulf. The studio has smartly included an equally impressive Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless surround sound track that suits the film perfectly. An oddly effective choice of music to open the film, it is a powerful, exciting score with a modern pizzaz and the chants of a male choir backing it up. No doubt it sounds great on the disc, as it is perfectly balanced across the entire soundstage. The boisterous, drunken party at the beginning is an active, "you are there" style sonic event as the chants, speeches, clanking of cups, and other atmospherics come to vivid life. The subsequent attack at the hands of the giant Grendel is as loud as it is stomach-churning. Backing up the gore and intensity of the scene is a well-balanced audio presentation that seamlessly integrates the viewer into the experience from a sonic perspective and crescendos as your living room becomes Hrothgar's bloodied hall. The voice of Grendel's mother echoes nicely all around us in chapter two as Grendel returns from the attack. Flip to chapter three as Beowulf sails towards Denmark in a terrible storm at sea. The film's score swells and the deep lows it engenders rock the subwoofer as the rainstorm engulfs the rest of the listening area. Dialogue in the scene is never hindered thanks to the powerful music and effects, and the scene is a joy to behold sonically. In fact, dialogue is always clear throughout. A sudden strike of what sounds like thunder in chapter eight might scare you out of your seat. It blasts and sounds as if it crashes at your feet, a perfect wake up call and sudden jolt of electricity into a scene that was otherwise quiet. The soundtrack is an exercise in sound design done right. It's loud but clear with great use of the entire sound stage in both the quietest scenes calling for the most miniscule of ambience or the most thunderous of action sequences. Tally another sonic winner in Paramount's column.
Beowulf Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Paramount sends Beowulf to the Kingdom of Blu with a generous offering of extra materials. In the Volume is first. This is an excellent picture-in-picture feature that shows viewers the live-action performances in a small box overlaying the final movie. Crude animatics are sometimes tossed in, too. It's amazing to see the film this way, watching the actors with a face-full of sensors and acting in body suits. A Hero's Journey: The Making of 'Beowulf' (1080i, 23:57) is a candid behind-the-scenes feature that begins with the actor's introduction to the technology employed by the filmmakers and moves into the process of applying the sensors to the actor's faces, wearing the suit, and following the grueling process of making the film, from acting out every scene on a soundstage to the many photographs taken of each actor. There is also an "interactive version" of this feature where users view pop-up trivia facts throughout the feature. It's odd to see a trivia track on a supplement, but this is where it is nevertheless. Both of these features are fascinating watches and worth your time if you're interested in the cutting-edge effects found in Beowulf.
The Journey Continues (1080i, 21:13) is a ten-part feature that offers a bit more in-depth examination of the tools of the trade that brought Beowulf to vivid, modern life. Next is Beasts of the Burden -- Designing the Creatures of 'Beowulf' (1080i, 6:56). This short featurette looks at Crispin Glover's performance of Grendel and the design of the character. The feature also focuses on Grendel's mother, the sea monster, and the dragon found in the film. Origins of Beowulf (1080i, 5:13) is a solid but short piece that reviews the original story, its influence on modern cinema and literature, and the reasons why the film's writers felt comfortable making the story their own. Creating the Ultimate 'Beowulf' (1080i, 1:59) examines Ray Winestone's performance and the physical alteration his character underwent from reality to the final computer-generated image of the character. The Art of 'Beowulf' (1080i, 5:25) considers the design of the sets and lighting schemes featured in the movie. A Conversation With Robert Zemeckis (1080i, 10:11) is a Q&A session with the film's director. Finally, eleven deleted scenes (1080i, 14:03), presented in a rough animated fashion, and the film's original theatrical trailer (1080p, 1:57) conclude the supplemental features. Please note that this is another Paramount title that failed to play in my Panasonic BD-30 player.
Beowulf Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Beowulf is a standout movie thanks to its wondrous special effects that create a virtual world with the motion captured actors that inhabit it. As a technical achievement, the film is nothing short of superb, a benchmark in the history of special effects that sets a new standard for this type of computer generated effects. Underneath the awe-inspiring veneer is a shallow film devoid of emotion, relying on its look and unquestionably exciting action sequences to further the story. Sadly, there is nothing between the action to capture your attention or emotionally invest you in the picture, as was the case with Beowulf & Grendel. Paramount's Blu-ray release of Beowulf is first-class all the way. With a picture quality that is, as expected, stunning, a lossless soundtrack that is worthy of the amazing visuals, and a solid set of extras, the disc is a must-buy for fans. I do encourage readers to also check out Beowulf & Grendel as a companion piece to this film. It may not be as flashy, but you may be pleasantly surprised by the emotional power of the story and the performances therein. Again, Beowulf is recommended.
Beowulf: Other Editions
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