Reviewed by Joseph McCabe
Director Robert Zemeckis? CGI-infused retelling of the epic poem Beowulf generated a mixed reaction in both audiences and critics when it opened in theaters last November. Though most agreed the 3-D was impressive, and the rendering of human characters a step up from Zemeckis? previous CGI spectacle The Polar Express, many expressed the same misgivings they had towards that prior film. "Is Beowulf really an animated film?? they asked, dividing into two camps?audiences, who balked that the film looked too much like a video game, and critics, who decried its use of rotoscoping as an affront to the art of animation; comparing it with such recent, ?pure? examples of the craft as Ratatouille and Persepolis. Many conveniently forgot Richard Linklater?s heavily rotoscoped A Scanner Darkly, perhaps giving it a pass as a more experiemental indie film, and thus more deserving of serious consideration than Beowulf?s traditional, more easily digestible storytelling.
But it?s that very storytelling that ultimately redeems Beowulf. For no matter one?s response to its undeniably imperfectly realized human figures, the film?s tight narrative?a hallmark of Zemeckis? films?is what lingers in the end. (And haunts?try to recall the last mainstream animated feature produced on these shores with such an unapologetically downbeat finale.) Ironically, it was that very narrative that proved such a difficult nut to crack for the films? writers, Pulp Fiction scribe Roger Avary and bestselling fantasist Neil Gaiman. For as the bonus featurettes on this disc make clear, Avary had toiled for years on streamlining the original epic poem into a screenplay before Gaiman came along. The problem, according to Gaiman, was that Beowulf consisted of two acts?in which Beowulf encounters Grendel and his mother?that bore little relation to a third?set years later, in another country, where Beowulf fights a dragon. In adapting this to the screen, Gaiman realized he must keep Beowulf in one country throughout the film, and cleverly linked the dragon to Beowulf and Grendel?s mother.
Without these conceits, the film wouldn?t work nearly as well as it does, and its DVD release, devoid of the 3-D that enriched its theatrical release, would be easy to overlook. Though, to be fair, Zemeckis? direction works beautifully as well. The director?s long been known for telling a story visually as much as possible. And he?s not afraid to cut Avary and Gaiman?s words for a bravura battle sequence if he feels it necessary to keep the momentum going. Unlike most Hollywood filmmakers, however, Zemeckis? action scenes really do advance the plot, and don?t distract from the greater story he?s telling. On the big screen, they were designed to take full advantage of the 3-D; and without it they undeniably lose a fair amount of luster on DVD. But without 3-D, one is also able to better focus on the film?s animation.
And, critics be damned, there is animation at hand, though of the far less elastic sort than one would encounter in the latest Pixar offering. There's also some incredibly strong vocal and motion-capture performances. Ray Winstone deserves credit for making his Beowulf (the only lead character in the film who looks nothing like the actor behind it) a nuanced and multi-layered hero, one with as many vices as virtues. Anthony Hopkins makes Hrothgar a pitiful though sympathetic monarch, Crispin Glover?s offbeat spirit shines through his mad-as-a-thousand-battlefields Grendel, and Angelina Jolie, who brought the digitally-conceived Lara Croft to life in the Tomb Raider films, is here brought to poetic justice--as Grendel's mother she becomes the slinkiest CGI character this side of the keyboard.
All of the cast (except Jolie) can be seen rehearsing, and occasionally performing their roles in costume?to better understand the movement of their characters?on the thoughtful making-of documentary found on the DVD. But aside from this doc, a few brief featurettes, and a sampling of production art, there?s precious little in the way of extras here. Perhaps Paramount?s already planning for a 3-D home video release of some kind, as they better learn how to take full advantage of high-definition DVD. (Note: there is an HD release, packed with as much image detail as one would expect, but no Blu-Ray edition is currently available.) If that?s the case, they may also want to include a director?s and screenwriter?s commentary (Gaiman, in particular, is an articulate fountain of knowledge, and gives especially good commentaries).
For again, to paraphrase another literary classic?also set in Norse country?the story?s the thing.