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Beowulf on DVD

Robert Zemeckis' follow up to his groundbreaking The Polar Express is a grand adventure, a tale for the ages, an epic that has come down through the ages in a way that would have undoubtedly made the title character proud.

It's Zemeckis' second "performance capture" film, where the actors are shot live and then digitized and inserted into the fantasy background - and what a background it is!

Zemeckis and his team have brought to vivid life the sixth century Danish kingdom being held in fear by the horrid monster Grendel (played by Crispin Glover - who also worked with Zemeckis in the first Back to the Future movie), a marvelously realized humanoid who can tear people apart with ease, yet who has a surprisingly human side to him as well as a deep, dark secret.

After Grendel's attack, the inebriated and amoral King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) wails plaintively for a hero - and wouldn't you know that, just as if on cue, one shows up, a fellow named Beowulf (Ray Winstone), who can apparently slay sea serpents while swim racing and who's looking for fortune and glory.

Beowulf lures Grendel to where he and his men are lying in wait. It's a tough battle, but Beowulf uses brain as much as brawn to cut the monster down to size and send him back home, bleeding and "disarmed".

You can imagine that Hrothgar's gratitude will know no end, and he makes Beowulf his heir and then, for reasons not immediately clear (but which we can figure out as the story unfolds), he commits suicide, leaving the kingdom and his wife (Robin Wright Penn, who worked with Zemeckis on Forrest Gump) to the new King, Beowulf.

Ah, but there's more to the tale than just the slaying of a monster: Beowulf doesn't tell anyone (though Hrothgar has it figured out) that when he went to verify Grendel's death and ensure his mother (Angelina Jolie) died as well that, instead, he had allowed her to seduce him, promising him fortune and glory. His soul is forfeit.

Jump ahead a few decades and an older Beowulf still rules and is still celebrated as a hero. But the magic chickens must come home to roost eventually (lest we have a very short movie), and a new menace appears, this time in the form of a fearsome, fire breathing dragon. Once again, Beowulf must don his hero's mantle to save his kingdom from destruction.

The story is first rate, as are the performances (though sometimes a tad wooden, undoubtedly due to the state of the technological art, at other times we were so involved that we forgot the movie is basically a cartoon).

The technology is first rate. Not only has the performance capture art evolved (the characters in Beowulf are even more believable than the ones in Polar Express though, as mentioned, not yet perfect), but the graphics rendering of the backgrounds and the like is beautifully photo realistic.

Beowulf, like Polar Express, was shot for 3D IMAX, and that would be by far the best way to see it. In fact, watching the DVD we noticed many shots that got our "Boy, wouldn't that look great in 3D?" meter going. Alas, the DVD is in 2D, but that won't spoil the excitement.

The DVD is of the "director's cut," and includes a few extra scenes, mostly of debauchery or violence that we didn't remember seeing in the theater. They don't add a lot, but they do help set the scene and create the mood.

The DVD picture quality is excellent but, in this day of high definition discs, even up converted via our reference home theater the disc left us pining for a Blu-ray version. Paramount has released the movie on HD DVD, its format of choice since the fall of 2007 when it and Dreamworks made their very unfortunate decision to back the wrong horse in the now-complete format war. We can't recommend you pick up the HD DVD version unless you already have one of those white elephants of a player - and we beg Paramount to give us a Blu-ray version as quickly as possible. This is a movie that truly deserves to be seen with the highest resolution and best picture quality available - and that's Blu-ray, now that HD DVD is dying out..

Still, if you have to watch it on DVD, this one offers excellent picture. The anamorphic widescreen picture is about as good as you can get from 480 pixels of resolution, with good detail and contrast.

Audio, alas, is only offered in Dolby Digital 5.1 (no dts), but the quality is also very good.

Special features include deleted scenes, a "making of" documentary and several very interesting looks at the making of this groundbreaking film, including peeks at star Ray Winstone (who cuts quite a different figure in real life), horses saddled with dots so they can be rendered digitally, a section on designing the film's monsters and some background on the original epic poem and the inevitable liberties the writers took with it.

If you haven't yet made the move to Blu-ray - or just can't wait for Paramount to start supporting the new HD format winner again - the DVD of Beowulf is well worth having. But we can't wait for the Blu-ray. We'll let you know how it stacks up against other state-of-the-art movies when we get a chance to audition the BD release - at which time we'll be very happy campers indeed (assuming they do a good job on the disc, and we have no reason to think they won't).

So, good DVD - but bring on the Blu!

Beowulf, from Paramount Home Entertainment
114 min. anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1, 16x9 TV compatible), Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
Starring Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn, John Malkovich, Brendan Gleeson, Angelina Jolie
Written by Neil Gaiman & Roger Avary, directed by Robert Zemeckis

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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