Jabberwocky

Studio: Criterion

Nov 28, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


A Dark Ages dope named Dennis accidentally saves the kingdom from a foul monster in 1977’s Jabberwocky, the (solo) feature filmmaking debut from cult auteur Terry Gilliam. When his barrel-building father disowns him on his death bed, the clueless, optimistic Dennis (Monty Python’s Michael Palin) decides to leave behind his peasant village and find his fortune, hoping to impress his disinterested lady love, Griselda Fishfinger (played by Annette Badland, who’d go on to play the Slitheen leader on Doctor Who.) He heads off to the big city, where King Bruno the Questionable is holding a tournament to find a champion to square up against the fiendish Jabberwock, a horrible beast that’s tormenting his subjects. Thanks to a series of slapstick accidents, Dennis finds himself in increasingly dangerous situations as he unwittingly becomes the hero of the realm.

After the widespread success of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Terry Gilliam – the troupe’s lone American member – desired to step out from the shadow of his British comedy mates and establish himself as a filmmaker. To do so, he’d have to divorce himself from the sketch format that the Pythons had so impeccably mastered. Against his impassioned protests, however, the film was mis-marketed in parts of the country as “Monty Python’s Jabberwocky,” which surely left a lot of eager audiences walking out of the theater scratching their heads.  

It’s hard to appreciate Jabberwocky as much more than a transitional piece. It’s very much a Terry Gilliam film, but in pupal form. There are a few indications of the often-grotesque, surrealist vision he’d put on fuller display in his subsequent films, and Michael Palin’s hapless Dennis feels like a medieval test-run for Sam Lowry, the character he’d play in Gilliam’s 1985 masterwork, Brazil. ­(The very idea that the director extrapolated a seven-verse nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll into a feature-length film plot is just so Gilliam.) Meanwhile, there’s much in the film that doesn’t feel that far removed from Python: not only in the on-screen appearances of Palin, Gilliam, Terry Jones, and Neil Innes, but because Jabberwocky looks and sounds just like Holy Grail. In hindsight, it seems like a pretty foolhardy choice for Gilliam to build his coming out party from the same setting and much of the cast of his prior ensemble’s biggest hit, which had been released just two years earlier. It’s like if McCartney had left the Beatles to release a song called “Hey Judy,” which also featured Ringo Starr on drums.

Jabberwocky plays best on a scene-by-scene basis: there are segments that roll out like sketches – again, the Python background carries over – which are some of the movie’s best, and running gags which do pay off. (A long scene involving the severed head of the king’s ex-herald is a personal favorite.) There are also some great, surreal visual gags which are trademark Gilliam, such as blood sprays being player over and over again for comic effect during the jousting tournament, not to mention the Muppet-like “Jabberwock” puppet itself. As a whole, Jabberwocky will certainly be of interest to both Gilliam and Python fans; we just can’t see it ever becoming a favorite of either.

Criterion’s Blu-ray treatment upgrades with film with a Gilliam-approved 4K restoration and 5.1 sound mix. There’s a Gilliam/Palin co-commentary held over from a previous DVD release, but many of the extra features are new, including a lengthy documentary featuring new interviews with the filmmaker, cast, and producers, an interview with puppet-maker Valerie Charlton, and a recording of Palin and Badland reading Lew Carroll’s original poem. (You’ll also find a gallery of Gilliam’s sketches and storyboards, the film’s original opening, and an interview with the film’s photographer from the late ‘90s.) It’s a very admirable package, and Gilliam fans will appreciate all of the behind-the-scenes materials.

www.criterion.com/films/29266-jabberwocky




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