Good nonsense is indeed hard to find. Terry Gilliam’s 1977’s “Jabberwocky” is less the spiritual successor of his previous landmark comedy “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, but more of a continuation on that film’s satirical bent of the Dark Ages with silliness run amok during very cruel, nasty times. Based (very) loosely off of the mythical Jabberwocky poem of Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There”, Gilliam (Twelve Monkeys, Brazil) was trying for a more robust story and dark complexity than straight ahead comedy. So going at it Python-less with the writing, he was also trying to expand a film into a more robust narrative and not rely on framing sketches around the comedy and story.
Starting with a rather clear homage to, at the time, recent sensation, “Jaws”, we see a joyful poacher (Terry Jones) catching and loading a sack around his back with various animals one by one who proceed to fight within said sack. The tables are slowly turned as the quick and powerful Jabberwocky descends upon the oblivious poacher in a way a shark would if it could run around on land. We see the poacher’s face stuck in frame, screaming as the background moves frantically as if being carried violently by an enormous, unseen beast. It is just the right amount of silly and brutal to form maybe the film’s height and thesis statement upfront. Gilliam is always good for grand opening, as his 1998 “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” might be the greatest example of one committed to film. There is still plenty of comedy to be had, but it’s filled in between Gilliam’s trademark brute harshness, stylistic fancies, in this subversive parody of the typical hero’s tale. It really is quite the epic as our hero, Dennis (Michael Palin), an extremely naïve peasant with basic cooper skills sets forth to stop the menacing Jabberwocky that is roaming the countryside eating every man in its path.
After the sudden death of his father, Dennis decides to head into the kingdom and says goodbye to his boorish, glutinous, and quite mean, uh lady-friend. Dennis is completely ignored and literally defecated on when saying his final goodbye to his dear, Griselda (Annette Badland), and her equally ill-bred family. Dennis picks up a discarded potato that is thrown at him, mistaking it as a farewell memento. He proceeds to carry his cherished potato throughout the film, it eventually growing rotten, and think longingly about his one true love that probably does not care if he lives or dies, let alone makes it back. As the world around him is going through a starving period after being scared to leave the kingdom protected by the outside world, Dennis eventually makes his way into society and is thrown into situation after situation of peril and misunderstanding. The Gilliam world in “Jabberwocky” is filled with buffoonery, insolence, fear mongering, crude bureaucracy, and corruption.
Through a series of mishaps, Dennis eventually makes his way into the King’s daughter’s room and she mistakes him as her prince to be. Dennis is steadfast in his love for Griselda and rejects the Princess with the possibility of living a life of luxury. Dennis through making every mistake possible eventually comes face to face with his mythical beast, the Jabberwocky. In an attempt to help a real knight, he mistakenly gives him the wrong weapon and the knight is brutally destroyed. While trying to avoid the beast, Dennis somehow penetrates the beast with his sword and defeats it. Dennis returns a hero, is torn from his old love Griselda (who now suddenly cares deeply about her man), and is forcibly married to the beautiful Princess before riding off into the sunset with the look of absolute worry upon his face. In “Jabberwocky”, everything is essentially, boldly wrong and rewarded for it.
Gilliam stated he wasn’t intending to make a straight comedy out of “Jabberwocky” per say, but to infuse the winning humor he had been known to do with a larger-than-life narrative. While the film was billed as “More Monty Python than Monty Python”, this film attempts to exceed that film’s own eventual larger than legend legacy, even with the ironic help of Python players playing various parts in it. Gilliam may have been trying to carve out his own story here, but the Python humor and aesthetic still cast a deep, looming shadow on the film. Combine that with the strong incongruity of the medieval life and Arthurian landscape that informs most of the comedy, it is hard not to think back on Gilliam’s previous work and compare and contrast. Gilliam’s scope, ambition, and cynical bent would not flounder here, but “Jabberwocky” is definitely lesser work for the director who had the difficult task of a small budget to create such a big, strange world. Perhaps only essential to the true Gilliam fans, it still stands above its overlooked reputation.
“Jabberwocky” gets a crisp new 4K restoration by the BFI National Archive and The Film Foundation, along with a 5.1 surround soundtrack mix supervised by Gilliam himself. It’s quite the improvement to the old DVD release and makes it for the definitive version thus far. Supplements include a new documentary featuring Gilliam, Palin, producer Sandy Lieberson, and actor Annette Badland, a new interview with Valerie Charlton, designer of the film’s creature, the Jabberwock, featuring her collection of rare behind-the-scenes photographs, audio interviews with cinematographer Terry Bedford from 1998, selections of Gilliam’s storyboards and sketches, and commentary by Gilliam along with Michael Palin. Also included is an essay by critic Scott Tobias along with the film’s trailer. Gilliam’s commentary is from 2001 (George W. Bush references and all) and is quite entertaining and informative concerning the film’s origins along with great anecdotes from the film’s production. It is quite the package and great presentation of a film that largely doesn’t get little due outside of the Python circles.
Available on DVD and Blu-Ray