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Beowulf - action adventure DVD review
Unrated by the Motion Picture Association of America rating: 4 stars
Actors: Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn, John Malkovich
Director: Robert Zemeckis   Studio: Paramount
DVD release: 26 February 2008   Runtime: 144 minutes (2 discs)
Format: Color, Director's Cut, Dolby, NTSC, Widescreen
DVD Features: Subtitles (English, French, Spanish), Audio Tracks (Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround - English, French, Spanish), "A Hero's Journey: The Making of Beowulf," "Beasts of Burden," "The Origins of Beowulf," "Creating the Ultimate Beowulf," "The Art of Beowulf," Deleted Scenes, Trailers, Easter egg (Coffee Break with John Malkovich)

King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) has a problem: he likes to make merry. The problem is that, when he does so, his neighbor from across the way, Grendel (Crispin Glover), gets angry and starts eviscerating Hrothgar's guests. Apparently Grendel has some sort of genetically over-emphasized eardrum that can't stand the noise. Hrothgar puts the word out after a party goes horribly wrong, and Beowulf (Ray Winstone) answers the call to take care of the King's neighbor. He battles Grendel honorably - Grendel has no clothes or weapon, so Beowulf battles similarly attired. Beowulf does his job while shouting his name as a battle cry. I think I knew guys like Beowulf in high school. They'd shout things like "I'm Todd!" before shoving me into a locker.

After he is dispatched, Grendel's grieving and furious mother (Angelina Jolie) kills a bunch of Beowulf's men. Och! A hero's work is never done. Beowulf must run off to the hill to where she lives to take her out as well. In the darkness, he makes a deal with poor Grendel's ma so that Beowulf can be king and live a long life. Soon he's king, living with the lie he's told of his victory over the hag up the hill (she's actually totally hot, but with a spooky tail).

I'll not reveal more of the story for fear of totally ruining it for you. I will tell more of the technical workings of the film, however. This is a computer-generated movie. The actors who lend their voices to the characters are fitted with wetsuits covered in Ping-Pong balls. The movement of these balls is recorded by receptors on the set, and the action is transferred to the figures in the computer. It's called motion capture, or mocap. Director Robert Zemekis used this technique in The Polar Express, Monster House (which he produced), and will likely use it in the upcoming A Christmas Carol. On the whole the film is fine, but I kept seeing similarities between characters from BEOWULF and The Polar Express. The skin tones are excellent and very realistic, but the animation is just too... stiff, I guess. Perhaps the motion capture simply doesn't yet translate well to CGI characters, I don't know.

The creepiness factor is there, too. The realistic human characters frolic in what is known as the Uncanny Valley. The theory of the Uncanny Valley suggests that, as a robot or similar synthetic being looks more human, people respond favorably - to a point. When a certain point of realism is reached, people become repulsed. That explains why Recussi-Annie never got dates. This kind of animation may always live in the Uncanny Valley, but the methods themselves are not bad. Motion capture has brought us the ape in King Kong and The Lord of the Rings' Gollum. It's the attempt at realism that may always misstep.

Aside from some unease induced by the technical aspects, BEOWULF is a fine film. While I can't quite recommend it heartily, I do recommend it.
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reviewed by Eric Renshaw
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