Sunday, February 21, 2010


[Reprinted from "Hey, Did You Ever See the Movie...?"]

Every high school graduate who has ever taken an English class has a passing familiarity with the oldest surviving Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. Thanks to the moderately-successful Robert Zemeckis animated adaptation, the percentage of familiarity among high-school dropouts was even raised. It’s the classic struggle of good versus evil, might vs. might vs. right, the noble Geats vs. the evil offspring of the Biblical Cain. Monster attacks King Hrothgar’s Heodot mead hall, Beowulf is called in to do something about it, an arm is removed, soldiers cheer.

Literature being what it is, Beowulf has been translated and re-examined and monkeyed with hundreds of times since those wild-and-wooly days of 515 A.D. In 1971, author John Gardner took a stab at the story in an attempt to not only satirize the bad behavior of humanity during the early years of the Vietnam War, but to also give both sides of the story. In his novel, Grendel, the titular beast is “at war” with the Danes because he can’t communicate with them. He understands what they say, but they can’t (or won’t) understand him. He’s also at odds with the creatures of the forest and his own existence, seeing life as something that constantly attacks. He has a couple of conversations with a wise and ancient dragon who advises him to stop worrying and fighting destiny, “find a pile of gold and sit upon it”. The “heroic” Beowulf is depicted as a soulless human and is only on the stage for the last chapter of the book. As we know Grendel’s fate going in, the ending is expected, but no less tragic. By the last page, the reader has finished something beautiful, agonizing and frustratingly existential.

Which makes the animated adaptation, Grendel Grendel Grendel, all the more curious. Produced as the second animated feature-length film from Australia, directed by Alexander Stitt and starring the vocal talents of Peter Ustinov, Grendel Grendel Grendel is a colorful, stylistic and “modern” re-telling of not only the poem but the book as well. This time, our monster is a chubby, almost-childlike polka-dotted dinosaur who lives in a cave and talks to his mother (unseen but for a beastly shadow in an early scene). He is curious about the outside world and tries to make sense of the inexplicable actions of the humans, represented by King Hrothgar and his Danes. The humans kill and devour animals, fight and murder each other and yearn only for possessions. Hrothgar and his three primary companions, Wicklov, Unferth and Ork (who remains eleventh in command after Unferth joins, even though there are only four people in the whole kingdom), are dim, prideful, chubby Cockney chaps and provide the bulk of the comedy for the film. Midway through the film, we’re introduced to a blind “Shaper” (singer) and his assistant, who provide Grendel with his first taste of earthly joy. Hrothgar’s new bride, Weathlow, represents the only “pure and innocent” thing on earth, to Grendel’s mind. Meanwhile, he dreams of a dragon who tells him that everything is inevitable and that he is necessary to humans because it inspires them towards science, religion and war in order to both explain him and defeat him. And that is Grendel’s function in the world: to be misunderstood, feared and hunted. Which makes our cuddly monster a little more bitter towards the squabbling creatures.

In the midst of all of this heady philosophy come numerous, treacley songs and clumsy pratfalls. It’s never truly clear for what audience this film was intended. The bright colorful design and cheerful songs seem to cry out to children. But all the discussions of the nature of existence, a few scenes of surprising violence, an intensely sleazy Beowulf and even a brief shot of a topless Weathlow make one take pause. At 71 minutes, the pace even seems to drag throughout, primarily because we spend so much time with the idiotic Danes and not nearly enough time with the delightful and insightful title monster.

Ultimately, the journey is enjoyable enough, as far as animated fatalism goes. Though it does help to have a familiarity with Beowulf going in, it’s not entirely necessary. Since its initial release, Grendel Grendel Grendel has fallen into relative obscurity. It had a brief VHS release in the mid-‘80s with little fanfare and no official DVD exists to my knowledge. With the success of the Zemeckis animated feature, you’d think that there would still be a market for even an oddly-colored horse like Grendel Grendel Grendel.

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