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Beowulf: Director’s Cut

Paramount/Warner Bros/ImageMovers (November 5 2007), Paramount Home Entertainment (February 26 2008), single disc, 114 mins plus supplements, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, Not Rated (original theatrical cut rated PG-13 for violence and sexual imagery), Retail: $29.99

Storyboard:

The epic old Anglo-Saxon poem gets as faithful an adaptation as the movie medium gets: an ultimate edition of sorts rendered in computer generated images. Hero of the tale Beowulf is a mighty warrior, known far and wide, but doubted by Unferth, the protector of King Hrothgar, until he emerges victorious in battle with Grendel, a viciously scarred and frightening monster who abhors the King’s frequent festivities. When Grendel returns to his Mother, a shape-shifting devil in disguise who quickly takes revenge against Beowulf’s men, Beowulf is determined to slay both creatures and heads out for their cavernous lair. There he finds Grendel’s succubus Mother tempting, overtly sexual and hard to resist. Finally seduced, Beowulf is named the new King and lives a long life of pleasure until he displeases Grendel’s Mother and she vows to bring Beowulf down with all the might of her malevolent power, just as she had done with Hrothgar, and will do again, and again…

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The Sweatbox Review:

In 2004, Tom Hanks promised the world the absolute state of the art in motion-capture animation with his director-buddy Robert Zemeckis’ film The Polar Express. They even came up with a new term to describe the better-than-mo-cap technique that would translate each and every nuance of the actor’s movements into the computer rendered realm, “performance capture”. Over five years after Final Fantasy came so close to perfecting computer generated humans on screen (though the less said about the story the better!), the general consensus with The Polar Express was…what went wrong? The term “uncanny valley” quickly gathered buzz as the way to describe the soulless, empty eyed humans seen cavorting rather stiffly in the film, and any proclamations that motion-capture had taken a huge leap forward were quickly spun instead into how much money the movie was making in 3D Imax screens.

Two years later, the Zemeckis produced Monster House took a different approach to the same technique. Here, though, instead of trying to make an animated Tom Hanks look like the real Tom Hanks, or even more bafflingly trying to make the actions of an adult-sized Tom Hanks fit the dimensions of a kid-size Tom Hanks, the focus was on assigning a motion-capture double to their character who was actually cast for being in the right ballpark to begin with. So kids were playing kids, adults played the adults, and Kathleen Turner played the title monstrous house hell bent on eating anyone who set foot inside the front door. Coupled with an original twist on an old story, Monster House succeeded precisely because its human figures were Pixar-styled caricatures. Even though the motion-capture ethos hadn’t been entirely swept clean from the final feel of the animation, which still came over as being too “real”, akin to the rotoscoped look in traditional fare, Monster House was a real step forward, and when it was announced that Bob Z was taking the same approach to the epic old poem Beowulf and promised a greater sense of technique development, we couldn’t wait to see what he came up with next.

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Unfortunately, Beowulf, here released in a Director’s Cut that adds scant minutes to the running time but reinstates violent and gory shots that were deemed necessary to cut out of the PG-13 rated theatrical edition, is a giant leap back, not even a step forward – at least in terms of what the audience gets as a final looking result. And the main problem again is the mo-cap technique. At best (in examples such as The Lord Of The Rings’ Gollum and Sonny in I, Robot) it’s a way for an adept physical actor to perform the basic movements of a character, allowing then for the keyframe animators to come in and add that “squash and stretch”, if you will, that actually gives animation the real touches that we take for granted. Zemeckis, with his Performance Capture, seems to want to be eliminating this process, attempting to grab more of the overall personality acting “live” on the stage. Unfortunately, this doesn’t lend itself well to the final result: mo-cap, whatever fancy name you give it, is like old-school pencil drawn rotoscoping, where the movement is so tailored to reality that it then doesn’t actually fit in a cartoon world. And if your characters aren’t working on screen and engaging the audience, things are just not going to work, even if you’ve come powered with the most multi-layered story and you have a basically naked Angelina Jolie in the cast.

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The only time I’ve seen mo-cap really working was in the extremely graphically styled Renaissance, where the stark, hardcore black and white comic-book-noir design smoothed over any such cracks. Renaissance also benefited from performers that understood the mo-cap process and didn’t use – not to berate those performers’ work – “actors” per se. Beowulf’s main difficulty in being in any way believable is that, for the most part, it tries to make a CGI puppet version of Anthony Hopkins look like the real flesh and blood Anthony Hopkins. Now, we all know what a human being looks like, and subconsciously we all know how a human being moves, thinks…all those little quirks that make them human beings. We’ve also seen Hopkins in a variety of – and this doesn’t help matters – extremely subtle, emotional and very human performances. The problem is amplified when we’re asked to believe that this “figure” that looks like Anthony Hopkins and sounds likes Anthony Hopkins, plainly ISN’T Anthony Hopkins!

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The digital transformation of Ray Winstone from stocky Indiana Jones sidekick (in the upcoming fourth film) to six-pack boasting action hero makes the comparison harder to make, but then why not just hire Sean “Boromir” Bean or Gerard “King Leonidas” Butler? Winstone even shares Butler’s odd Sean Connery accent – “they say you have a maunshtaar here” – from 300. I never heard of a Scottish Cockney before! How come Angelina Jolie is a dead spit for Angelina Jolie, down to her…well, everything it seems, as we well get an eye full of onscreen (who knew that her hair doubles as a demon’s tail and she has what looks like a painful foot heel condition?). Surely choices like this render the aim of an animated film pointless? Why not just shoot the whole thing with real actors and the odd bit of CGI, a la 300, a film that the marketing for Beowulf desperately wanted us to remember. I’m sure co-financers Warner Brothers would have been happy with that, also allowing them to bundle the two films together in later DVD sets and split costs on the marketing: “This is Sparta!”, “I am Beowulf” – “You are Beowulf”, everyone could shout at each other.

But that’s not been done…for all the good writing and concise adaptation (by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary) that exposes a hero as a flawed human being just like the rest of us, Beowulf lumbers along under the weight of its technology, a technology that hasn’t frankly, reached the plateau needed to pull off a story of this magnitude. Even though things didn’t look right, the sheer fantasy elements of The Polar Express and Monster House might just have pulled those chugging beasts through, but again we’ve seen a hundred sword and sorcery epics to know that what we’re looking at isn’t real, and not by a long shot. Why did they, then, try and make said CG models look like their actor counterparts when we all know what a real Hopkins and John Malkovich look like? Could it simply be that audiences are becoming so used to such sub-par approaches, like albeit impressive video games, they they’re willing to overlook (or are unable to comprehend) such inadequacies?

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What’s most upsetting is that Gaiman and Avary’s words are ultimately meaningless when the personalities being asked to convey them onscreen can’t pull their emotional weight. The figures, on the whole, look vacant, and do not seem to want to make any kind of eye contact between themselves. While they are supposedly gazing in each other’s directions, the eyelines are way off…a scene early on has Beowulf himself coming ashore and facing some adversaries on horseback, but it’s unclear if he was apparently speaking to the man on horseback, the horse itself or the sword being brandished in his face! This oddness spreads to the rest of the cast and all their faces, like they’ve not only all been digitally mapped in the computer but had themselves and their CG models whitewashed with Botox. There are scenes of real vocal debate, with Malkovich’s Unferth really shouting on the soundtrack. In a live scenario, I would be tense at his facial actions, seriously worried for the character he is opposing. As he is portrayed here, even when mad with rage, all his pathetic CG model could muster up was a bit of a slightly annoyed frown.

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Once again, the technology, which really should have come on leaps and bounds since Final Fantasy ten years ago, fails us as an audience and Zemeckis and his hard working crew. Again, the characters walk with a lifeless nature – I counted roughly only four blinks between characters during the entire movie. In fact, so unemotionally engaged was I that it became a game I played as the film unspooled. At which point I began to find many other unintentionally hilarious points to question: why did Beowulf have girlie hands? What’s with Grendel’s Mother Jolie’s naked stiletto heels? Why didn’t the monster Grendel, Beowulf’s ultimate foe, look better than Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings more than five years ago? Why did everything look texture mapped? Why did the battle scenes feel like you were watching someone else playing a (bad) video game? Why did Zemeckis’ directorial skills seem to completely vacate him, showing no restraint as he swings and swerves his non-existent CG camera around in a fashion usually reserved for inexperienced direct-to-video helmers?

The answers are mostly down to one thing: the lack of believability in the Performance mo-cap technique, with the reliance on the voice performing actors to reprise their roles in those skin-tight blue ping-pong ball covered suits. The cast is a good one – all perhaps being able to be grabbed for cheap because the shoot involved no extensive location shooting – but they’re not the right people to be performing these roles physically. Winstone, Hopkins, Malkovich, Jolie, Brendan Gleeson – these are all great actors, able to inhabit any role, but taking away their emotional support and replacing it with technology strips them of who they are. Much better would be to allow capable performance artists – like Andy Serkis and Alan Tudyk – who know their craft and can deliver compelling performances, with the right amount of extra physicality or a well-timed movement that would work wonders in these animated worlds.

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As usual with these things, the supporting members do the best work: Gleeson, as Beowulf’s best bud Wiglaf, is perhaps the best of the humans after the astonishing Jolie – not much of a stretch as she’s generally considered something of a special effect herself – and who’s character doesn’t have to cope with the rubbery costumes all the others have been lumbered with. Making a reunion between George McFly and his director is Crispin Glover, here creating the troubled Grendel and drawing easily the most empathy from any personality in the film. His battle with Beowulf, in Hrothgar’s barn, is a tour de force of playing from him, but the sequence is let down by unintentional laughter: why must Beowulf seemingly fight every battle naked? Much better is the final clash with a fierce Dragon (bizarrely Winstone again), which at least reverts to some good old-fashioned eye-gogging moviemaking, even if it does come too late to really care.

To the film’s credit, it sticks fairly faithfully to the major plot points of original, ancient poem (or at least the version I read of it way back when), but hacks out anything we didn’t need to know to keep things less labyrinthine than they otherwise might be. The usual filmmaking tricks have been introduced to slim it down and jazz it up for today’s Rings / 300 obsessed crowd, though everything you need to know to follow things clearly has been left intact. To be honest if I could invest one iota of attachment to any of the characters, this review would be painting an entirely different point of view entirely, but as it is, I could not become involved with any of it. I was hoping, towards the end when Beowulf has grown older, that we might even see a glimpse of a more Winstone’d warrior, giving that casting decision some semblance of reason. But, nope, he still looked like Boromir.

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No doubt in its Imax-3D presentations Beowulf worked more magic, but honestly, what’s the point of making a film for it only to work with a gimmick? Zemeckis seems hell bent on perfecting this strand of mo-cap: next up is A Christmas Carol, with Jim Carrey playing everyone except Tiny Tim, it seems, though if anyone would be able to act with his voice and his body then it’s Carrey, a wild physical performer as long as he’s not reigned in too tightly. Here’s also hoping that Bob Z’s old friend Steven Spielberg, together with Peter Jackson, are able to push the technology further, on their proposed Tin Tin trilogy. At this point, I’ve more faith in Jackson, who has proven his version of the technology works with Gollum and, possibly the greatest digital character achievement of the age, Kong, the giant ape in his wondrous King Kong from a couple of years ago.

I still find Zemeckis an extraordinarily interesting talent to watch, but more and more, rather than count down the days until his new picture opens, find myself dragging my heels toward the movie houses sometime during the first two weeks of playing. I hope A Christmas Carol reaches new heights for the process, and with Carrey he has as good a chance as any, but if Performance Capture has any future, it should be a technology reliant on specific artists acting out the movements, leaving the “acting” to the vocalists. Most disturbingly, it doesn’t seem to be improving, under Zemeckis at least. After Final Fantasy, Gollum and Kong, it just doesn’t make sense that these supposedly technologically advanced crews are coming up with messes like this. It has to be the insistence on Sony Pictures Imageworks: never have I seen a convincingly animated human figure from them, in all the Harry Potters, Spider-Mans or Superman returnings I’ve seen. As Pixar preached long ago, the story needs to push the technology, but it also needs to nestle with it. In this respect, like bad limited animation in the old school, ultimately Beowulf is beoloody awful.

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Is This Thing Loaded?

Beowulf’s theatrical version is also available in a vanilla, no-frills disc, but the one to go for if you’re at all intrigued is the Director’s Cut, which not only reflects Zemeckis’ original intentions for his film, but comes bundled with several fascinating supplements. It’s not been tagged as an officially full-blown Special Edition release per se, but Paramount have at least done the good thing and wedged in a good helping of bonus content. As with Transformers, say what you want about the film, but this is a solid extras package that, like that film, invite discussion and reappraisal, even if you’ll likely end up at the same disappointing result. Rather surprisingly, this Director’s Cut apparently doesn’t warrant a second disc…given the announced supplements and the length of the cut I naturally assumed we’d be getting a deluxe two-disc affair (which it is, in foreign countries), but it’s all been squished into one here, each one presented in 16×9 anamorphic widescreen.

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A Hero’s Journey: The Making Of Beowulf (running 23:55) starts things off on the welcome, non-promotional fluff approach, being more candid on-set footage than talking heads and clips. Again as with Transformers the process of making the movie is more involving and fascinating than watching the movie itself, and it’s clear that the crew enjoyed themselves. In early rehearsal footage and his make-up sessions, Winstone predictably comes over as being a bit of a lad, self-depreciating his real life less than heroic body status. Among the eye opening observations on show that reveal much as to how certain effects were created, we meet the lowly assistants whose jobs are to clean up after the live, CG dot-wearing horses that were brought in! Zemeckis is on hand prominently, and it’s never under question who is running this show.

With the cast in their elaborate mo-cap suits, we see that, nearly three decades ago, Tron’s Academy Award-nominated costumed really weren’t so far off the mark, though the often-referred to Jolie and her skin-tight mo-cap suit never materialises, though surely can’t be anything we haven’t seen in the likes of Tomb Raider. What’s really saddening, however, is seeing the emotion and facial ticks in the performers’ faces, totally wiped out on their digital counterparts when seen against the various picture in picture comparisons. Time is spent with Crispin Glover’s Grendel, and it’s made extremely clear from the way the actor invests himself in the character and has adapted to Zemeckis’ way of shooting – or “capping” – why Grendel is unquestionably the most successful performance in the movie.

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While I’d have been quite content to see much more of this kind of footage (a feature-length documentary is called for, essentially, to really get a grip on what’s being attempted), the rest of the featurettes focus on individual elements. Beasts Of Burden: Designing The Creatures Of Beowulf (6:53) naturally examines the more elaborately designed non-human cast of the story. Production Designer Doug Chiang primarily explains what the goals were, how the team reached them, and what the actors – notably Glover again – brought to their characters, as well as some of the characteristic embellishments, both serious and more fanciful, that have been embedded and tie each one together. Succinct and without losing any interest, this is a good piece that explores an often overlooked angle of the moviemaking process on these types of films.

The Origins Of Beowulf (5:12) is an odd one, namely because director Zemeckis admits how he never cared for the original poem. Now, quite often magic can be brought to a project by someone approaching it from the opposite approach, but in this case I’m reminded by Jonathan Frakes, who suggested that he “never liked” the original Thunderbirds show in the promotions for his feature film version – and we all know how that turned out. I can see Zemeckis’ point, though, and to writers Gaiman and Avary’s credit this is perhaps why, as a movie experience, Beowulf does make more sense in its simplified form. Here the filmmakers discuss the source and how they took about reducing the somewhat long-winded original to plot points for the screen.

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Focusing on the lead character himself rather than as the project as a whole, Creating The Ultimate Beowulf is short (at just 1:56) and ultimately not so sweet, coming over as the most back-patting of all the supplements. Relaying very little other than praise for the job of teaming Winstone’s gruff voice with a visually heroic heavyweight, this is the one aspect of production I really hoped to see more than this of. Some other interesting aspects of the project are explored in The Art Of Beowulf (5:25), combining a look at the film’s admittedly impressive computer designed locations, including peeks at concept art and miniature approximations, with the historical research that went into their fabrication, both in real world textures and computer renderings.

An unwitting look into the way these films are made is exposed in a series of six Deleted Scenes, running just over 10 minutes in all. Here, the animation is understandably uncompleted, allowing for those that know what they’re looking at to witness the tricks of the mo-cap trade. The moments themselves don’t appear to have been cut for any other reason than to deliver a feature under two hours, though there is no placing in context by way of any commentary or text pages to explain either way. Best are the scenes between Beowulf and the King’s wife Wealthow (another Zemeckis alumnus, Forrest Gump’s Robin Wright Penn), which helps examine their enigmatic relationship more explicitly, something still left cloudy in the finished film, while an easy cut had to be Wulfgar Greets Beowulf At The Stockade, a static scene that adds little tension to its moment. As with keyframe animation, some shots have just been blocked initially, without facial movement, offering a cruel comparison to the finished film and begging the question of if they forgot to add the required data to the faces in some of the finished scenes too.

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An Easter Egg, found in the first bonus menu page, reveals an odd Coffee Break With John Malkovich moment (1:10) – basically shots of the actor helping himself to cups of the hot stuff…and drinking it. Nope, me neither, but perhaps the point was to emphasize how much he drank of it during the shoot? Who knew Malkovich was a coffee fiend? Well, now you know. Despite a lack of commentary, this is a pretty comprehensive bonus package, topped off with a Theatrical Trailer (1:55) that jumps on the 300 bandwagon, attempting to draw in the same crowd. Looks like the audience was pretty savvy though: Beowulf came nowhere near to matching the Spartans’ surprise box-office take earlier in the same year. Additional previews for Iron Man, the Rolling Stones concert flick Shine A Light and The Kite Runner are also included.

On HD-DVD, Beowulf promises more; a pre-CG special effects stage shoot presented alongside the complete film, again following the path well trodden by 300, and some additional deleted scenes. Given a greater critical and commercial response, one wonders if a second DVD might have offered these additions and more – a much needed commentary by director Zemeckis is most conspicuously absent and I’d have loved to have had some of the more perplexing production decisions enlightened upon. For those grumbling about Beowulf being only available in one hi-def flavor so far, no doubt a Blu-Ray edition is just around the corner.

Case Study:

For a major theatrical movie, Beowulf comes to disc looking unexpectedly sparse. Apart from lacking an expected second disc, the packaging leaves a bit to be desired, from the Beowulf with sword art that obviously hopes to trade on memories of 300 (again) and the hint of Jolie’s breasts (on the back), to the lack of any slipcover (embossed or otherwise) and not even an insert. The description of “digitally enhanced live-action” on the back cover should be reported to trading standards and practices, both deceiving an audience expecting to see real live human actors, and the FX technicians who diligently worked to create an “animated” feature. About the only special touch is a front sticker that shouts out its Unrated status with “footage too intense for theaters”. Raising questions as to whether Paramount and Warners were ultimately disappointed with the end product and its reception, it’s fair to say that Beowulf has pretty much just been dumped on the market.

Ink And Paint:

As a digitally created movie, Beowulf looks as good as it should do considering that the DVD was probably mastered from the original files before the theaters even took delivery of their old-fangled film prints! The 2.35:1 ratio brings Beowulf’s murky and shadowy world to life, and the film does deserve plaudits for its production design…everything apart from the characters looks pretty darned nice.

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Considering the disc is fairly packed with other content, the compression works overtime to deliver a stunning, reference quality image, even if it does intentionally flirt with being too dark at times. It would look even better in hi-def, of course, but for the majority this won’t be an option because there’s no Blu-Ray release (yet), this being from HD-DVD only Paramount. No doubt international viewers, where the title is being handled by newly Blu-Ray only Warner Bros, will get the better option.

Scratch Tracks:

Again, Beowulf benefits from having major Studio financing, a top-drawer director and strong performers on its side, and anything less than a first-rate soundtrack would be an embarrassment. Long-time Zemeckis collaborator Alan Silvestri’s score pounds its way through the speakers with immense power, though it’s often nearly as cut-and-paste as the visuals, sounding at times more along the lines of Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator and its sampled like, especially in the action sequences. Helping the almost perfect 5.1 audio is the fact that the actors’ voices could all naturally be recorded in optimum stage conditions without all the distractions of a live-action shoot. When it comes to Beowulf’s personalities, there’s nothing actually wrong with the vocal performances, just how they’ve been translated visually. Again, the solution here is to use physical performers for the capture data and those with the more powerful voices to convey the emotions. Close your eyes, and Beowulf makes for a very involving and elaborate radio drama! French and Spanish subs and dubs are selectable in 5.1 surround.

Final Cut:

For all its realistic ambitions, Beowulf comes off as nothing but a crass cartoon, embarrassingly crude and camp in places where it’s striving for genuine humor. It’s such a crying shame to see one of my favorite directors seemingly chasing after a technique that shows little signs of improving. It seems the director of such amazing, real-life films as the Back To The Futures, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Contact and Cast Away has left behind what made those films stand out – flesh and blood faces on screen. Yes, it’s true that those films also relied on groundbreaking visual effects to enhance their stories, and this is another realm in which Bob Zemeckis shone: his ability to meld on-set footage with later generated elements was second to none, and each film I saw of his pushed the boundaries that much more forward. Ironically, I caught Cast Away on TV again recently, and just marvelled at the way Zemeckis coaxed out an almost award winning and highly emotional performance from…a volleyball. If only the supposedly more realistic puppets here could give half as much, he could be on to something.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

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