The most entertaining and revealing item on the Beowulf: Director’s Cut DVD isn’t the movie, in which waxy-looking humans with recognizable voices (Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich) alternately battle and cower before the creepy sixth-century monster Grendel. No, it’s ”A Hero’s Journey: The Making of Beowulf,” the featurette that shows you how the film — eminently watchable on the small screen, by the way — was created by director Robert Zemeckis, a platoon of technicians, and modern science.
Technology has improved since Zemeckis made the even waxier-looking Polar Express in 2004. For Beowulf, the actors were costumed in what look like skintight scuba-diving suits (there’s much footage of portly Winstone, who portrays Beowulf; there’s none, alas, of Jolie, as Grendel’s slinky mom). To the suits are attached sensors, and via a process called digital motion capture, the performers become fully fitted-out warriors and medieval peasants. Working on a bare-bones set resembling a drab airport hangar, the human cast and crew eventually disappear, to be replaced via computer animation that ”draws” over those sensors, and presto — you have a very elaborate-looking, richly detailed, and colorful epic fantasy.
Zemeckis says in a making-of that this film has ”nothing to do with the Beowulf you were forced to read in junior high — it’s all about eating, drinking, killing, and fornicating.” To which I can only respond, Oh, you poor, deluded baby boomer: Bob, do you think young people in 2008 have an Old English epic poem on the syllabus? American literacy is lucky if junior high schoolers get a stray Hemingway short story into their diet of crappy young-adult novels. As for the eating, drinking, et cetera — well, that’s just pandering to what teens do when they’re not watching movies anyway.
But to move from delusions to illusions: Beowulf is good, gory fun — its best character being the monster to be slain, Grendel. That’s because Grendel is an original-looking scary creature — more gnarled and lopsided than your usual buff scary movie creature. He’s portrayed here by eccentric actor Crispin Glover as a crippled demon, a tormented ”mama’s boy,” as Glover describes him in the ”Beasts of Burden” bonus feature. As Mama, a gold-plated naked Jolie does her usual no-man-can-resist-me shtick.
There’s no commentary, but Zemeckis pops up so frequently on that illuminating making-of, it’s almost unnecessary. Still, for a DVD loaded with five featurettes and deleted scenes, couldn’t they have found room for an entertaining bit of legitimate scholarship about this literary work? At the least, I was hoping for a mini-doc of shaggy Irish poet Seamus Heaney in one of those CGI scuba suits, intoning a few pages of his tangy 2000 translation of Beowulf, with Angelina perched distractingly on his armchair.