" Time for me to row with all the other slaves "
— Leonardo DiCaprio, Titanic

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Beowulf’s Blu-ray release is showcase material. Presented as “The Director’s Cut,” which offers only a few brief moments of extra gore, Beowulf is a mighty fine piece of imaginative storytelling, one that warns about the temptations and dangers of the more base human desires.

Mead Street

The Blu-ray is showcase material
The Blu-ray is showcase material

Beowulf is a poem, written sometime between the seventh and tenth centuries (as Terry Gilliam would no doubt quip, on a Saturday, noon-ish). It’s an “Olde English” poem loaded with heroism and beer. Sweet! (The movie’s dialogue is snappy and modern, so fear not ye who hath by Shakespeare’s tongue not been enchanted.)

This animated version uses the same performance capture process director Robert Zemeckis used on The Polar Express. The technology has come a long way since then, but this one is most definitely not for children. There is plenty of suggestiveness and faintly veiled nudity to warrant the theatrical version’s PG-13 rating, not to mention the violence that goes with the territory of dragon slaying, monster fighting and boisterous mead drinking.

That said, let’s get on with this character named Beowulf, one who inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to write a highly influential paper about the poem before Middle-earth became familiar turf. His paper turned heads and put the poem in a new light.

That’s a good thing, because the adventurous Geat (in modern-day terms, Swede) is one heck of a grandiose character. When he treks over to Denmark in 507 A.D. to slay a monster named Grendel who’s been terrorizing people at Heorot Hall, he introduces himself by very directly saying, “I am Beowulf. I am here to kill your monster!”

Dragonslayer

After slaying Grendel (Crispin Glover, Wild at Heart), Beowulf is a little irked when the challenge expands to executing an entire “family tree” of monsters. Nonetheless, Beowulf goes on an excursion to find Grendel’s mother. In doing so, he falls into the same trap that tormented King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins, Titus), who knows a dirty little secret about Grendel’s vengeance.

Therein is this Beowulf’s strong suit. Amid the extravagant effects and action set pieces, there ebbs a fantastic cautionary tale about seduction, greed, vanity, and living a life of lies.

The original Beowulf is a truly great story, one that relishes in the elements of high adventure, bravery, and heroism. But how faithful is the movie to the original poem? Well, some will say it’s extremely faithful, their memory recalling the demon, the mother, and the dragon; others will say not at all, and most of them, on either side of the divide, will not have read it themselves.

So, in comparison to Seamus Heaney’s sterling, highly readable translation, let’s just say you better not base your thesis paper strictly on the movie (or this review, for that matter). While the movie closely follows the poem up through the slaying of Grendel in the first act, things rapidly go in divergent directions from there even as the key challenges that Beowulf faces remain the same.

Pulp Fiction

The biggest, and most exciting, change is a new back story which takes the material in a wildly different direction that is actually mighty, mighty interesting. The screenplay, written by graphic novelist Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, who won an Oscar for his work on Pulp Fiction, brings all three of Beowulf’s primary challenges into one related theme that makes for a surprisingly thoughtful reinterpretation of the poem.

Still, there are some diversions that are a little annoying, particularly given the film’s hype, grandeur, and promising accessibility to younger audiences. Given the source material and the 3D atmospherics the film’s makers were so eager to exploit, the amount of sexual themes and faux nudity is a little off-putting and unnecessary.

In playing down the book’s sense of honor, the film bulks up on a bunch of hokum, particularly the awkward staging of Beowulf battling Grendel in the altogether. Yeah, there is a reference to Beowulf’s bare hands in that poem, but come on now. How much more liberal a poetic license can one take than that?

Even so, Beowulf is an adventure worth taking. But it’s best to keep things in perspective and take this Beowulf for what it is, a reinvention of a 1,000-year-old story spun with many modern day sensibilities and a marvelous visual flair.

Blu-ray Extras

This Blu-ray edition contains all the material from the relatively Spartan standard DVD versions plus all the bountiful content from the HD DVD version. Overall, it’s a package that really engenders a much deeper appreciation for the effort and imagination it took to make the movie happen.

The following featurettes, presented here in high definition, also appeared on the standard DVD.

  • Beasts of Burden — Designing the Creatures of Beowulf is a really good look at the thought process
  • behind the film’s monsters.
  • The Origins of Beowulf acknowledges this movie diverges from the source material. But there’s quite a bit of hubris here as well. The writers assumed the monks back in the day had essentially censored and edited the story down, making it the choppy work it is today. Gaiman and Avary, in their infinite (and imaginative) wisdom put the material back in. It’s fractured logic. But, thankfully, their reasoning works on film.
  • Creating the Ultimate Beowulf is merely a quickie 2-minute look at transforming the kinda chubby Winstone into the hunky Beowulf.
  • As with Beasts of Burden, The Art of Beowulf is a good look at the movie’s production design, giving a nod to the historically drab and simple buildings of the day while also feeding the familiar Hollywood/Camelot sensibility.

The disc also includes the original theatrical trailer in high def.

Blu-ray Exclusives

“Exclusive” in this case is a bit of a technicality. This Blu-ray edition sports all the content originally produced “exclusively” for the now-defunct HD DVD edition released earlier this year. And all of the supplemental content, including deleted scenes, is presented in high definition.

The most unique feature is entitled In the Volume, which takes advantage of Blu-ray’s relatively new picture-in-picture capabilities. While the movie plays, the secondary picture plays through the entire filming of the actors in their black tights and electrodes on the set affectionately called “The Volume.” The feature also incorporates scattered moments of pre-visualization footage.

It’s fun to take a gander at Ray Winstone, John Malkovich, Robin Wright Penn, horses, and all the other players in their high-tech outfits. Everybody, that is, except for Angelina Jolie. No such footage of her sporting the electrodes is to be found. Instead, the scene in which Grendel’s mother seduces Beowulf reverts to decidedly old-fashioned pencil storyboards beforeā€¦ the picture-in-picture disappears altogether for the remainder of the scene. Three other — very brief — scenes with Jolie are treated similarly. Perhaps, in Jolie’s complicated sense of morality, full-frontal nudity is fine, but seeing her in black tights and electrodes is verboten.

How practical it is to watch the entire movie with this feature is debatable, but it is most definitely an interesting — and to a certain extent valuable — use of the functionality.

Carried over from the standard DVD, but with a twist, is A Hero’s Journey: The Making of Beowulf. This 23-minute making-of documentary benefits from the Blu-ray technology (as it did on HD DVD) by offering an optional pop-up trivia track and the option to jump to secondary, more in-depth featurettes at certain points during the documentary.

The Journey Continues allows direct access to each of the 10 branched shorts accessible during the “Making of.” The topics all focus on the technology of Beowulf, including the now famous “T” pose, props, stunts, and a spiffy item referred to as E.O.G. that revolutionized Beowulf’s eye animation.

A Conversation with Robert Zemeckis is a really nice bit of film school, quite literally. The 10-minute feature shows Zemeckis answering questions from USC students following the first 3D screening of the movie. It’s interesting to listen to Zemeckis describe the filming process in the Volume as more akin to traditional theatre than standard Hollywood filmmaking.

There are also 11 deleted scenes, an up-tick from the six found on the standard DVD. As with the standard-def edition, they’re all in the pre-visualization stages of production and, therefore, rather hard to watch with much excitement. One scene in which Wealthow shows Beowulf the new-fangled sundial is pretty neat in terms of the ideas involved, but the others are so-so at best.

The disc does offer menu-in-movie navigation, but in terms of supplemental features, only In the Volume is accessible while the movie is playing. To access the other extras, the viewer has to exit the movie and go to the main menu. Not really a big deal, but notable.

One last note: the Easter egg from both the standard def and HD DVD versions is also included. Entitled A Coffee Break with John Malkovich, it is exactly what the title implies. It’s pretty goofy, but why not? To access it, go to Extras then take a left on The Journey Continues. The royal dragon horn appears. Select it.

Picture and Sound

Beowulf on Blu-ray is showcase material. It fulfills the promise of the technology: to bring a theatrical-quality presentation to the home.

That starts with the picture, which is gorgeously detailed. The props and costumes zing with the same realism they did in the theatre and there are moments that come darn close to replicating the sensational IMAX 3D presentation.

And the audio is equally phenomenal, pumping out Alan Silvestri’s vicious score and backing up the action with plenty of enveloping surround sound. Audio options are English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD as well as 5.1 Dolby Digital in French and Spanish.

Optional subtitles are available in English, English SDH, French, and Spanish.

How to Use This Disc

Naturally, watch the movie in all its high-definition, unrated goryer, glory. Then be sure to check out A Conversation with Robert Zemeckis and Beasts of Burden. Skip over A Hero’s Journey in favor of The Journey Continues and be sure to check out In the Volume for at least a few scenes.