Never before has the “circle of life” been more applicable to a home video release than it is to Paramount Home Entertainment’s Beowulf Director’s Cut. The high-profile HD DVD title comes at the end of the format’s short run, and it will likely be one of the final films released in “red.” But in HD DVD’s death, a new life sprouts with the commercially successful use of new motion-capture techniques applied to animation that the director, Robert Zemeckis, first pioneered with lesser results in The Polar Express.
Underneath the glitz and glamour of near (but not quite) photorealistic imagery in Beowulf is a fairly fluffy and gory expansion of the original Beowulf 3,000-word poem that haunts middle school students’ dreams. It retells the first documented instances of greed, lust, power, monsters and heroes in the English language utilizing the performances of Crispin Glover, Anthony Hopkins, Ray Winstone and Angelina Jolie — as captured by a small army of infrared sensors capable of recording each actor’s subtle movements.
The core events are intact with a monster, Grendel, haunting the kingdom of King Hrothgar until he is ultimately defeated by Beowulf in an act of naked superhuman bravery. The story then extends to explore the relationship between Grendel and his mother, and what transpires between her and Beowulf when she discovers who killed her son.
New twists added by the writers are telegraphed early on, leaving little room for surprise other than the “wow” factor of a giant golden dragon laying waste to attacking forces, or a naked Angelina Jolie glistening in water. That “wow” factor is enough to hold one’s attention, especially as the animation ratchets up in complexity as the story hits its final action-packed act.
As an entirely computer-generated film, there’s no preconceived expectation that Beowulf will looking anything short of spectacular in 1080p. With no dedicated supplemental features competing for disc space, Paramount had no excuse with HD DVDs 30GB capacity to not deliver an AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer fitting of the artists’ meticulously detailed work. Beowulf’s visuals and strong contrast in high-definition are the epitome of demo-viewing material.
The total high-definition package carries over to audio that never seems to let up, especially during Grendel’s early scream-filled attacks. The audio mix sounds strong and clear enough to be lossless Dolby TrueHD, only it isn’t. Paramount chose to utilize Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 lossy audio instead, perhaps to free up additional disc space for the video. Someone not familiar with the disc specs will struggle to determine whether the audio is lossy or not. Unless Paramount utilizes Dolby TrueHD on the imminent Blu-ray version, we’ll never know.
It comes as no surprise Paramount spared “no expense” in culling together a wide selection of informative and cutting-edge 1080p HD supplemental features to complement Beowulf’s high-profile release. Disc One offers up a pair of HD DVD exclusives starting with Beowulf in the Volume, a feature-length picture-in-picture box displaying the raw motion capture images synced with the finished film. The process is so intriguing that it’s hard to turn this feature off once firing it up. Also offered is Web Access to a series of brief snippets about the film including the cast, technologies, etc. This information could as easily been offered on Disc Two instead.
Speaking of the second disc, it kicks off with a bang and is home to the bulk of the bonus material. A Hero’s Journey: The Making of Beowulf is a “fly on the wall” look at Zemekis and his team designing and filming the 28-day shoot for motion capture. As if this material weren’t already technologically intriguing, Paramount has included optional pop-up trivia, a feature typically found in feature films, and the ability to jump out to shorter featurettes that expand on the terminology used by the cast and crew. All-inclusive features like this are the future of home video, rather than endless lists of documentaries, interviews and more.
Each of the short featurettes accessible via A Hero’s