LIST CANDIDATE: GRENDEL GRENDEL GRENDEL (1981)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alex Stitt

FEATURING: Voices of Peter Ustinov, Arthur Dignam, Ed Rosser, Ric Stone

PLOT: Baffled by the rise of little men who fear him, Grendel chews over his strange life experiences while talking to his silent mother, questioning the nature of his existence until his purpose is made obliquely clear when he visits a nearby dragon.

Still from Grendel Grendel Grendel (1981)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: After fruitless efforts to find reasons why it shouldn’t make the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever Made, I realized that Grendel Grendel Grendel must deserve a slot. There’s marvelously unrealistic animation, witty soliloquies, and even a few musical numbers—none better than when a singing Grendel interrupts a ballad with, “Who’s the beast that looks so swell? G-R-E-N-D-E-L. What’s his purpose, can’t you guess? N-E-M-E-S-I-S!” Yes, this little monster ‘toon from Australia has what it takes.

COMMENTS: In my brief but busy history here at 366, I’ve encountered many kinds of weird movie. Scary-weird, grotesque-weird, unnerving-weird, incomprehensible-weird… but Grendel Grendel Grendel marks the very first time I’ve encountered cute-weird. Through its simplistically expressive animation, Grendel brings us the less-known story of the eponymous monster (charmingly voiced—and sung—by the great Peter Ustinov). The novelty of the perspective, the coloring-book-come-to-life feel of the imagery, the drollery, and the musical numbers collide in a wonderful spectacle of light, sound, whimsy, and weird.

On a “Tuesday Morning, Scandinavia, 515 AD”, we see warriors troubled by a massive footprint. Thus appears the first sign of Grendel. Indeed, as we learn early on in a song, this monster is a hulking 12’4″ and covered in scales and fur. He eats forest game and the occasional human—but kills far fewer humans than the humans themselves. The humble origins of the up-and-coming King Hrothgar (Ed Rosser) show a man of only slightly greater intelligence than his peers who has, in effect, a three-member posse and a kingdom in name only. But as Hrothgar’s kingdom grows, so grows the body count (with, admittedly, a few in the tally racked up by Grendel). It is only through a misunderstanding that things take a serious turn and the King calls for an exterminator.

So we’ve got our adorable anti-hero, our petty humans, and wondrous color-block environment. Grendel is urbane and witty— similar to Peter Ustinov. The narrative conceit is that Grendel talks to his (unspeaking) mother, with an interruption every now and again for song. Simultaneously the “shaper” Hrothgar hires for his mead hall forges a mighty ballad about the King’s nose and its battle-earned scar. Also, a mystical dragon discloses facts of life to Grendel, in song and dance form. By the time Beowulf arrives on the scene, we know exactly for whom we won’t be rooting—although Grendel ‘s Beowulf is hilariously snide and lecherous. All told, there’s not much going on in this movie that one would describe as “normal”, particularly for a G-rated animated feature.

With its unlikely ingredients, Grendel comes together far, far better than one would readily think it should. The director, Alex Stitt, also wrote the screenplay and produced, so we’ve obviously got a labor of love here. It was a fortunate turn of events that his labor was executed with competence, grace, and ample style. It was also fortunate that the (also great) James Earl Jones turned down the lead role when offered to him (ostensibly when he found out it would be an animated picture). Peter Ustinov provides one of his greatest and most memorable performance as the lovable Grendel. His personality underscores the beast’s humanity, and allows us an anchor in the vibrantly fanciful world of Grendel Grendel Grendel.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One’s appreciation with likely depend on your tolerance for listening to omniscient dragon sages singing about Manichaeism and lilting folk-synth ballads describing Grendel’s horrifying features. Personally, I found it to be a well-suited mix of profound modernist absurdity and classical nursery rhymes… I can only hope that the spirit of risk-taking eccentricity that inspired its production will get reincarnated in other projects.”–Film Walrus (DVD)

6 thoughts on “LIST CANDIDATE: GRENDEL GRENDEL GRENDEL (1981)”

    1. Despite the obvious genius of “Grendel Grendel Grendel”, somehow there aren’t many images out there — luckily that one happens to capture the essence of the character and the film pretty well.

      I hope I did the film justice with my review.

    2. Of course. It’s a great review for a great movie. I was just kidding. And being a little disappointed that the reviews on this site in the last few years only cover things that I either already know or that came to the cinemas or festivals recently and I already stumbled upon or would have stumbled upon anyway.

      I was always hoping that someday someone would open some kind of door and behind it there are tons of great movies I didn’t even know that existed, you know like when I was 17 and first saw O lucky man, Bad Boy Bubby, creepy Asian gore-movies or some Lynch stuff. I guess this kind of experience can’t be repeated.

  1. As one might expect, I stumbled across a lot of weird movies before stumbling across this web-site. And yes: 17, or thereabouts, is a magical age to find off-beat films.

    I remember in the Olde days, a site called “Reel.com” (before it was bought by a video rental chain) had a great system of recommendations based either on direct thematic / personnel similarities with whatever film you were reading about as well as one of a more stylistic / “vibe” kind of similarity. Having at one point found one weird movie, it was a piece of cake to explore the “genre” further.

    Though I couldn’t speak for The Boss, my feeling is that this site acts as a curator for films that people like you and I (and many other site visitors) made a point of discovering solo. While I would be thrilled to have a vault opened one day to a glorious trove of Weirdness, unfortunately a lot of the things not yet explored at 366 yet are nigh impossible to come by.

    P.S.: Glad you liked the review.

  2. While this film is quite whimsical and well-made, it somehow seems less weird to me than other similar features, such as the recently-inducted Hugo the Hippo. I watched this whole film without my weird-o-meter a-beepin’, but I suppose it’s all subjective! Still worth seeking out though, especially for parents wanting to raise cool kids with offbeat films.

    1. Subjective — you’ve got that right. Is “Grendel Grendel Grendel” the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen? Certainly not. Is it at least the 366th weirdest movie I’ve seen? I’d say so.

      Watching what I have over the years, I’ve no doubt my “weird-o-meter” is more than a bit skewed; the last time it went off with gusto was perhaps while watching “Hard to be a God” (which is, as of this moment, merely a contender). For many here, weird is probably their normal.

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