"Man, I wish I were in the version
of this story with the Playboy Playmate."
Nary a week goes by that we don't think, "By gum, we'd love to see some classic works of literature turned into movies. And hey, why stick with boring old live action movies? We wanna see animated musical versions of the most beloved and important works in the history of the world." Just imagine: Mel Gibson as the voice of Satan in Paradise Lost! David Ogden Stiers as the title character in Moby Dick! Mark Hamill as Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis! (Man, we really want to hear the songs for that last one.)
On the other hand, there is the old adage about being careful about the things for which you wish. Grendel Grendel Grendel is an animated musical version of the Old English epic Beowulf, and it's so surreal that you would be forgiven for thinking that we made the whole thing up. Beowulf would appear to be an obvious choice of a story to be made into a movie, with its heroes and monsters and even a dragon at the end, yet there haven't been any film versions that we know of. Two recent movies have approached the material from odd angles. The first was the 1999 The 13th Warrior, starring Antonio Banderas, based loosely on the story of a real Arab historian combined with some very odd paleo-anthropological theories courtesy of author Michael Crichton. In The 13th Warrior, Grendel is actually a tribe of Neanderthals. Then there was the Christopher Lambert film Beowulf in 2000, but title aside it strays even further from the source. It's set in a post-apocalyptic future, and Grendel is some sort of demon thingy. However, Beowulf does have the advantage of featuring a Playboy Playmate in a prominent role, which is really a must when adapting literary classics to the big screen.
"Maybe that monster knows what
happened to our outlines."
For a few minutes we had high hopes for Grendel Grendel Grendel. Finally, a film version of Beowulf. Sure it's animated and a musical, but it's based on the poem, right? As it turns out, no. It's not based on Beowulf, but rather on the 1971 novel Grendel by John Gardner, which is an existential version of Beowulf told from the perspective of the very sensitive and lonely monster named Grendel.
Okay, so it's an animated musical version of an existential novel based on an Old English poem. That can still be good, right? Did we mention it was made in Australia and most of the characters have Australian accents? Grendel is played by the late Peter Ustinov, who gives the man-eating ogre that sophisticated edge we would expect. The rest of the cast is a collection of British and Australian character actors, which imbues the whole film a kind of Monty Pythonesque quality that isn't entirely inappropriate, but we sure wish the jokes had been better. If you're going to play a literary masterpiece for laughs, you really should show up with some A material.
"Hey, buddy! Move it! We're trying
to make A Mollusc's Life here!"
On to the story. Grendel Grendel Grendel starts with a live-action introduction from writer/director Alexander Stitt, explaining the importance of monsters from a social and psychological standpoint. Then the opening credits start, accompanied by the following song:
Grendel, Grendel, Grendel
Your mother loves you Grendel
Standing there, all 12 feet four, or more of you Mother loves every hair, every scale, every tooth, nail, fang and claw of you
Grendel, Grendel, Grendel, Grendel
Grendel, Grendel, Grendel
Your mother needs you Grendel
Listening nightly at the door for you
Mother loves every grunt, every groan, every howl, moan, wail and roar from you
Grendel, Grendel, Grendel, Grendel
While other people Grendel
May not even like you Grendel
The feel, the size and scale of you
The smell, the eyes and wail of you
Are all too much and much too scary...
Perhaps if you weren't so green... and hairy!
Looking past the fact that their cave has a door, this song (which is much more a '60s hippie ballad than anything we expected to hear from an '80s composer) serves to introduce us to Grendel, who basically mopes around the forest, looking for a purpose to his life. Though he enjoys ripping the head off the occasional human and he commands the fear-inspired respect of all who encounter him, Grendel is actually quite depressed. He has no real company -- his mother slumbers in an abyss and everyone else wants to kill him for being true to his monstrous nature. So most of Grendel's dialogue is with himself or with his dreamtime companion, a dragon who dwarfs him as much as he dwarfs a human. This is all very introspective and we're sure it has deep philosophical consequences, but from an entertainment standpoint it's just Ustinov droning on to himself for the better part of ninety minutes. The remaining time is filled by the humans, who busy themselves with the petty religious and political intrigues brought about by their fear of Grendel and his mother (referred to as "the Great Boogy"). There's a lot of ill will bandied about between King Hrothgar and his faithful warrior Unferth, whose famous cowardice is somewhat explained by the revelation that Grendel refuses to kill him. Though Unferth seems willing to die for his king and his honor, Grendel prefers to let him suffer the shame of a cowardly appearance. The rest of the human population stands about wondering why their gods have allowed Grendel to wreak havok upon them, but they always manage to forget their grief just in time to sing another incomprehensible musical number.
"Now this is more like it!"
It's not until the nearly the end of the movie that Beowulf shows up, portrayed in a manner that makes him seem only slightly less sinister than Hannibal Lechter. In his first few minutes on screen, he not only makes it plain that he considers King Hrothgar the small king of a small kingdom, but he also moves in on Hrothgar's wife and belittles Unferth's already questionable prowess as a warrior. As prescribed by the epic, Beowulf and Grendel do battle, but it's over in a few seconds and Beowulf wins by dint of an accident (and Beowulf's apparently rabid dog). There is some animated gore, lest we not get the point that Beowulf is a bad man.
Neophites to the world of animation might find the style of the film novel, especially when compared to the shiny computer animation prevalent today. The picture is stylistically primitive and dominated by bright pastels, which results in an overall effect somewhere between South Park and Yellow Submarine. It's possible that you could reproduce the effect of watching this movie by reading Beowulf while high on mushrooms and listening to a Pink Floyd album. After a couple of hours you'd probably start having conversations with yourself that would sound a lot like Grendel's.
Maybe Beowulf's problem is that his
nose starts at the top of his head.
Grendel Grendel Grendel got practically no distribution in any form, and after watching the whole thing it wasn't much of a mystery why. It's tough to imagine for whom this movie was made. People attracted by the name Grendel and hoping for an action movie are going to be disappointed by the talkiness. While the animation and songs might attract children, it's difficult to imagine they'd sit through all the navel gazing, and the nudity and violence would hardly be appropriate. People honestly interested in the existential angle would probably feel an animated movie with songs rhyming "scary" and "hairy" is below them. Perhaps that's the question with which these ersatz-Disney philosophers should have been wrestling -- just who is the audience for this bizarre animated film?