Beowulf: Director's Cut (DVD)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
The Director's Cut of Beowulf offers only a few brief moments of extra gore, but it's still a mighty fine piece of storytelling, one that warns about the temptations and dangers of the more base human desires.
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!"
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.
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.
Overall, the disc offers a decent package of supplemental features. But, given all the work involved in this production and the clever retooling of the source material, a running commentary with Zemeckis, Gaiman and Avary could have been really enlightening. Unfortunately, no commentary track of any variety is on tap.
"Right now I can only say that this has nothing to do with the Beowulf that you were forced to read in junior high school," director Robert Zemeckis says in A Hero's Journey: The Making of Beowulf. "It's all about eating, drinking, killing and fornicating."
Well said. And the 23-minute making-of documentary is also pretty well done. There's loads of footage of Winstone and Glover in skin-tight black outfits, acting out the roles that will be far more lavishly presented in the end product. But, for all the time spent showing the actors in their funny tights, this short documentary merely glosses over the entire alphabet that exists between getting the movie from point A to point B and still leaves plenty of questions unanswered about what happened after the actors fulfilled their duties.
The disc also carries a slew of short featurettes.
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 the main making-of documentary, this featurette doesn't really address all the computing required to turn the one into the other.
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.
There are also six deleted scenes, but they're all in the very early, rough stages of production and, therefore, rather hard to watch with much enjoyment. The first one, in which Wealthow shows Beowulf the sundial, is pretty neat in terms of the ideas involved, but the others are so-so at best.
The disc also sports the original theatrical trailer.
One last note: there is an Easter egg! It's entitled A Coffee Break with John Malkovich and it is exactly what the title implies. It's pretty goofy, but why not? To access it, go to the first page of Special Features then left arrow from the top option to reveal the hidden option.
Picture and Sound
This is a beautifully done disc. The video presentation is marvelously first rate and it's backed up with a terrific, richly-detailed soundtrack in Dolby Digital 5.1 (available in English, French, and Spanish).
The disc also includes English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
How to Use This DVD
Check out the movie in all its unrated gory… er, glory. Then plunder the additional features by checking out A Hero's Journey and Beasts of Burden. For those hungry for a little more pillaging, maraud The Origins of Beowulf, but proceed with caution if you raid the other supplements.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.