Monday, December 22, 2014

The Anti-Blockbusters: Grendel Grendel Grendel

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars

Depiction of Grendel from the film
This little-known Australian animated musical comedy based on John Gardner’s book Grendel came out in 1981 and was written, directed, and designed by Alexander Stitt.  The book and the movie give us a different perspective on the events of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, this time from the point of view of the monster that the warrior slays (a similar revisionist take on the poem can be found in the excellent 2005 film Beowulf & Grendel).  The book came out in 1971 and, as the introduction to the movie suggests, offered a counterculture look at a classic piece of literature.  Grendel is portrayed not as a mindless, homicidal monster, but as a creature who follows a very different path than the humans who have marked him as their enemy.  Grendel is seen as a loner, who even the beasts of the forest shun, with no one to talk to except his deranged mother and a dragon (ostensibly the one that Beowulf encounters later in his own tale), who offers some philosophical quandaries to Grendel, but not much in the way of useful advice.

I recall encountering Grendel Grendel Grendel (the repitition of the beast's name comes from the film's theme song) during the early days of VHS (link to Wikipedia provided for those unfamiliar with the term) as one of the few genre entries on the shelves in the rental stores.  I watched it then and it stuck with me for years, but I could never find it again because it disappeared from video shelves and didn’t receive the DVD treatment (until just recently). 

It's a very strange animated movie, and not one that audiences nurtured on the high-tech CGI of films like Toy Story, Shrek, and The Incredibles (or even the line drawings of the Disney films) will easily warm up to.  The drawings are done in a very simplistic, child-like manner, and the animation itself is quite choppy.  The whole thing, with its musical numbers included, appears to be targeted at very young viewers.  But the subject matter is far above the head of a pre-schooler audience and it has some rather graphic scenes such as Grendel biting the head off a warrior and Beowulf ripping the arm off the beast (it even has some brief nudity). 

In truth, the movie is definitely intended for an older audience, and genre fans should give this one a chance.  The crude graphics actually become quite endearing once you get used to them, and the childlike simplicity of it all actually provides a good contrast to some of the moral dilemmas raised in the story.  And the voice actors all do an excellent job with their characters, especially Peter Ustinov who lends his vocals to Grendel.  And it seems to follow the book pretty well, though it’s been years sense I read that, so it could diverge more than I remember.  Consider it a diamond in the rough, but still an excellent piece of fantasy story-telling with some existential, philosophical undertones to it (the same is true for Gardner’s novel).

The film has finally received a DVD release, though what you get is a DVD-ROM that by all appearances looks to be a transfer from VHS.  And it doesn’t come over too well, with the color contrast way too heavy and the picture blurry at times.  It’ll do for those of us who have been waiting eagerly for a chance to revisit this film, but may further frustrate modern-day viewers who are already put off by the rudimentary graphics of the film.   

A note of interest:  Grendel Grendel Grendel was only the second full length animated feature to come out of Australia.  The first was 1972’s Marco Polo Junior Versus the Red Dragon.

Buy Grendel Grendel Grendel and Other Anti-Blockbusters from

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