The SmarK DVD Rant for Beowulf – The Director's Cut (HD DVD)

Beowulf HD DVD
Available at Amazon.com
“I couldn’t even hear the monster coming.”

“Well, you’ll hear me!”

Now, admittedly it’s been a while since I studied the ancient epic poem in high school, but I don’t recall it going for the dick joke quite so quickly. On the HD DVD supplements, writer Neil Gaiman puts forth the theory that the monks who transcribed the original story edited out a lot of the violence and profanity, for reasons of maintaining a good Christian morality, but I’m pretty sure there are no lost sex puns in Olde English. But I get ahead of myself.

Let’s face it, Beowulf (the original poem that we all took in high school), is pretty boring. No, no, don’t deny it, Robert Zemeckis says so and if you argue with him he’ll just edit you out and digitally replace you with Forrest Gump, so just accept it. In fact, if you’re like me, you were probably reading the original poem as an impressionable teenager and thinking to yourself Man, what this story needs is a Hollywood screenwriter to really punch up the dialogue and fix the plot. Well, have I got the movie for you!

OK, I kid, but not much. Taking the epic poem and turning it something like a cross between The Polar Express and 300, the results are pretty good. For as much as I make fun of it here, I had a really good time watching Zemeckis reimagine Beowulf as a macho action hero, and it actually feels like a natural progression for the character. Whereas 300 is still the manliest movie ever made by quite a wide margin, Beowulf ripping Grendel’s arm off while yelling “I…AM…BEOWULF!” in an alpha male voice is quite an impressive achievement in testosterone advancement. The problem, however, is that the movie can’t maintain that kind of street cred for the entire two hours, unlike 300 .

So the plot, which you probably know (or THINK you know, because my life is heavily influenced by movie trailers), is pretty simple for a 3000 line poem. King Hrothgar of Denmark has a brand new mead hall for getting good and drunk, but a monster named Grendel makes life difficult for everyone by storming in and killing people. Clearly, a hero is needed, preferably one with a British accent and a six-pack. Filling that role is Beowulf, in the most wonderfully over-the-top performance (well, sort of performance, which we’ll get to in a bit) since Arnie’s prime. Follow this if you will: Beowulf wants to fight on the same level as the monster, who kills without the benefit of armor or weapons, so he strips naked before taking him on, so that he can kill him with his bare hands in an honourable fashion. Now that’s manly.

Now here’s where they start to take liberties with the story, and anyone who gets all uppity about spoilers with a 1500 year old story can suck it. In the original poem, Grendel has a vengeful mother, played here by Angelina Jolie, who gets murdered by Beowulf in the second act of the poem. Not so here, and in fact the logic starts to get a bit foggy, as the reasons for why a gold dragon cup is so important to Mommy Dearest are never explored. We just know that she REALLY wants it, and as long as she has it, Beowulf will be King or immortal or something. In the poem, Beowulf goes back to Sweden to fulfill that royal destiny, but apparently THAT would be too confusing for the audience (according to Zemeckis), so instead he now assumes the throne of Denmark after Hrothgar commits suicide. Huh? Trust me, this movie tries WAY too hard to advance the plot at times. And the third act, with the aging Beowulf suddenly fighting a dragon for some reason (although to be fair the original poem made the same leap of logic), is just really silly and trying too hard to be all Arthurian and poignant and stuff. You had me at Grendel, Bob! And I know that the movie puts a father/son story into the mix, with a rivet gun it feels like, but a DRAGON?

But really, the thing that bugged me from a plot point of view was the character change in Beowulf at the halfway point. In an effort to make him more “human” (which is funny for a movie where the lead actor isn’t even remotely like his on-screen counterpart), Beowulf succumbs to the charms of evil Angelina (and let’s face it, who wouldn’t?) but then lies about it afterwards, giving him his fatal flaw for later on. Bah. I don’t want fatally flawed heroes, I want King Leonidas, taking no crap from anyone and telling it straight until the end. My interest in the character is not when he’s being introspective and screwing around on the Queen, it’s when he’s ripping Grendel’s arm off and telling stories about how he lost a swimming contest because he was busy killing sea monsters. Luckily, that first half of the movie is more than awesome enough to justify all the stupid crap that follows, because otherwise I wouldn’t be so lenient in giving it a free pass. But really, you’ve gotta check out the fight with Beowulf and Grendel, because it’s pretty damn cool.

Now, let’s talk about the computer animation and such. I am of course reviewing the HD-DVD version of the movie, which means that every little detail of the CGI is laid bare, and this movie is ALL CGI. It is of course “digitally enhanced live action”, which is a fancy way of saying that it’s animated. I don’t know about the theatres or regular DVD because this was my first exposure to the movie, but the video transfer is SO flawless here that it’s actually kind of off-putting in a way. Because there’s no grain or other human errors to be found, it really reinforces how artificial the product that’s being presented is, and for me it got a little distracting at the beginning. Once you get into the movie, it’s less so, but it might take a while to get used to it. Either way, the transfer is amazing, taking full advantage of the 1080P resolution that HD DVD offers, showing amazing detail and perfect color and contrast. But then most animated films offer that anyway.

The audio is equally impressive, featuring Dolby Digital 5.1 Plus and really cranking out the sound. One thing I liked about this mix was that the center channel didn’t feel underpowered like it usually does with 5.1 mixes — dialogue was clear and I didn’t have to jump to turn down the volume when the action started. It also features a very aggressive subwoofer mix, although it thankfully only kicks in when needed. Definitely a perfect demo disc, especially the Grendel fight (which showcases TONS of directional audio, features a great dark scene to show off the contrasts, and it’s REALLY violent, also a plus). I would go so far as to say that this is the best looking and sounding DVD of any kind, ever. It’s that good.

Well, the movie itself is the Director’s Cut, and from others have told me there’s no actual differences in the story or anything, maybe a bit more of Angelina, but honestly once you’re naked you can’t get any MORE naked, can you? As for the actual bonus features, the movie itself on HD DVD features a picture-in-picture feature that shows you a combination of the rough CGI and the actors creating the movie in “The Volume” (aka the staging area), and that’s pretty darn cool by itself.

But wait, there’s more!

The second disc features the rest of the goodies, all in glorious HD as a matter of fact. You get:

– A Hero’s Journey. This is the centerpiece documentary, about a half an hour long and featuring its own pop-up trivia track as well as supplemental pieces on specific topics that you can bring up when the little icon shows up on screen. Basically, everything you’d want to know about the making of the movie is here, and it really makes Zemeckis look like something of a genius in retrospect for going this route.

– A bunch of other little 5-minute featurettes, which are less interesting, ranging from the creation of the monsters to Neil Gaiman talking about punching up the story for the big screen.

– Deleted scenes, all of which are just rough animation and none of which add anything to the story.

– The trailer

– Web enabled features, which I can’t access at the moment because I don’t have my player hooked to an Ethernet connection anymore. However, I’ve seen the list, and there’s nothing terribly worthwhile.

The only thing possibly missing is a commentary track from Zemeckis.

As the format dies, Beowulf is a suitably bombastic end for the life of HD DVD, making it the last must-own release in the short life of Toshiba’s doomed format. Yeah, the movie was silly and the plot was head-scratching at times, but this is the kind of over-the-top film-making that drove 300 into near-legendary status, and it’s very effective here as well. For as much as I mock it, I was pumping my fist when he was giving his big speech to Grendel while killing him dead, and that’s worth a recommendation from me without hesitation. Strongest recommendation!

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The Ratings

The Film: ****

The Video: *****

The Audio: *****

The Extras: *****

Paramount Pictures presents Beowulf: The Director’s Cut. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Featuring the voices of Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich. Written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary. Running time: 114 minutes. Not rated. Released on HD DVD: February 26, 2008. Available at Amazon.com