Over the past handful of years there appears to be a move to make the animated film more and more lifelike. It’s an odd road to take seeing as how there’s this thing about using actors to breathe life into roles. You know – real people who, thus far, remain far superior as far as connecting on an emotional level. Animated films are often an escape from reality, not a recreation. Robert Zemeckis’ (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future) take on Beowulf, the ancient Norse poem, is a marvel visually but eye-popping effects are still no challenge for good old-fashioned human emotion.
Scripted by Neil Gaiman (Stardust) and Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction), Beowulf tells the legend of the Danish kingdom overseen by King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and how it was ravaged by the hideous monster Grendel. Enter our hero – Beowulf (Ray Winstone) – who slays Grendel and ends up taking over the kingdom. Over time Beowulf has to fight a dragon and other things but the reasoning is never fully realized or made sense of.
Zemeckis has a history of combining cinema with technology to great success. Forrest Gump, perhaps his greatest achievement, melds the two the best. Why? It uses technology to support a story. By bringing dead presidents back to life and making them speak again, Zemeckis was able to help shape the dimensions of his titular character and provide a backdrop of Americana. However even in its original three dimensions visually, Beowulf is largely a one-dimensional story. See Beowulf fight, see Beowulf fight and see Beowulf fight again. That’s pretty much it.
Visually, it is stunning. Although my first exposure to the film wasn’t until DVD, there’s no denying the beauty and artistry that’s gone into sculpting it. The fight scenes are intense and tremendously choreographed. It’s an exercise in creativity, just not one that I felt much towards other than numb. Beowulf manages to make the myth cinematic. And while it is often an exciting story and one that is very obviously the blueprint for every other “let’s go slay the dragon” story ever told, there’s still something vital missing from this adaptation. For every pore on Beowulf’s face, for every hair on his head, for every taste bud on his tongue, none of these make you feel. If you don’t know a character, it makes it tough to care for them or why they’re chasing down a dragon in the first place.
If Beowulf was intended to be an experiment in technology, then it’s certainly a success. However if life-like computer animation is to have a real future in outsourcing Hollywood actors, someone better come along and make a film that focuses on the human condition and not on which angle fake flying blood will look the best coming at you in 3-D IMAX.
Beowulf DVD Review
Like the film itself, the unrated DVD release of Beowulf doesn’t have a ton of meat on its bones beyond the surface. Sure, the enhanced widescreen picture is immaculate and the 5.1 Surround audio is equally excellent (available in English, French and Spanish). But where’s the bonus features this supposedly landmark film should demand?
The best of the extras is “The Art of Beowulf”. It goes about as in-depth as a five-minute look can and includes shots and explanations of model designs, design sketches, costumes and other artistic elements. “A Hero’s Journey: The Making of Beowulf” runs longer, but there’s also more dead space. It is amazing to see how many elements were used in creating this animated epic, but this take is somewhat superficial. “Beasts of Burden” looks at character design, while “Creating the Ultimate Beowulf” looks at how the film’s technology enabled a pudgy guy to become an iconic hero. Finally, there’s “The Origins of Beowulf” which looks at just that and how it was adapted from an oral myth into an epic film.
The DVD also includes six deleted (and incomplete) scenes totaling ten minutes, a theatrical trailer and trailers for Iron Man, Shine a Light and The Kite Runner.
If you go by quantity, there is a fair number of features on this disc, but when most of the featurettes are very short in length, you’re not going to find a lot of the depth you might want to given the unique nature of Beowulf.