Director: Terry Gilliam
Screenplay: Charles Alverson and Terry Gilliam (based on the poem by Lewis Carroll)
Stars: Michael Palin (Dennis Cooper), John Le Mesurier (Passelewe), Max Wall (King Bruno the Questionable), Harry H. Corbett (The Squire), John Le Mesurier (The Chamberlain), Warren Mitchell (Mr. Fishfinger), Annette Badland (Griselda Fishfinger), Rodney Bewes (The Other Squire), John Bird (1st Herald, Bernard Bresslaw (The Landlord), Anthony Carrick (3rd Merchant), Peter Cellier (1st Merchant), Deborah Fallender (The Princess), Derek Francis (Bishop)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1977
Country: U.K.

Jabberwocky was Terry Gilliam’s transition film—his first solo directorial effort outside his role in the British comedy troupe Monty Python, with whom he had worked since its inception in 1969—and it feels very much like a film caught between Gilliam’s desire to define himself independently from Python and his indebtedness to the Python style of humor to which he had contributed for nearly a decade. Because fellow Python star Michael Palin plays the film’s lead and it looks and feels very much like the group’s previous effort, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), it isn’t surprising that many people took Jabberwocky for another Python film or at least felt the urge to compare it to Holy Grail, usually to its detriment.

Alas, Jabberwocky is not a particularly good film, even though it is an often clever and exceedingly efficient in its absurdist experimentation mixing fantasy and comedy and romance. It will also forever remain a fascinating glimpse into Gilliam’s process of emerging from the Python troupe and forging his own artistic identity, which he would do with much more success four years later with the indelible Time Bandits (1981), which also happened to feature a number of Python members, but was much more distinctly a work of Gilliam’s unique imagination.

Jabberwocky takes as its launching point the Lewis Carroll poem, although the two have little in common outside of their title and a shared adoration of nonsense for its own sake. Set in dark, muddy, dank medieval England, Jabberwocky tells the tale of Dennis (Michael Palin), a decidedly ordinary and incredibly unimaginative young bumpkin trying to make a living as an apprentice to his father, a cooper who secretly loathes him because Dennis has no interest in his obsession with craftsmanship. Instead, he is engrossed in pedestrian business matters, especially as they pertain to Mr. Fishfinger (Warren Mitchell), whose grotesque daughter Griselda (Annette Badland) is the obscure object of Dennis’s wildly misplaced desire. Intent on making his own way in the world, Dennis leaves his small village and travels to the city to find employment so that he can one day marry Griselda. He finds this endeavor to be something of a challenge, especially since the walled city, which is overseen by the decrepit and senile King Bruno the Questionable (Max Wall), won’t even let him in at first. Once he gains entrance, he is catapulted into a bizarre netherworld that eventually finds him playing squire to a knight who earns the right to take on the titular monster, which has been mercilessly ravaging the countryside.

Gilliam, who cowrote the screenplay with Charles Alverson, a novelist and co-editor of the early ’60s satirical magazine Help!, is quite merciless in his satirical targets, aiming the majority of his barbed arrows at the world of business and commerce, which are here lampooned via not only Dennis’s depressingly prosaic dreams of economic efficiency, but also the medieval merchants who don’t want the marauding beast destroyed because he’s good for business (just as it does now, fear drives consumption and profit). Bloodshed means both money and dominance, which Gilliam satirizes in the film’s most brutally funny sequence that finds King Bruno, his exasperated counselor Passelewe (John Le Mesurier), and his borderline princess daughter (Deborah Fallender) splattered with increasingly copious geysers of gore from the knights who are being killed in the king’s misguided tournament to crown a champion to take on the Jabberwock (he is incapable of seeing that having the tournament be to the death is depriving him of dozens of would-be warriors).

Palin anchors the film with his guileless protagonist, who is amusingly naïve, but not much else. Jabberwocky is a much more consistent film than Holy Grail (which Gilliam co-directed), but it lacks that film’s utter commitment to anarchic glee. Gilliam, in a way, is trying to be more direct in Jabberwocky, and even when he lets it slide into absurdity (such as the knights playing hide and seek to determine a champion), it never quite takes off into the sublime heights reached again and again by Holy Grail.

The ultimate problem is that it feels like Gilliam never decided what he wanted Jabberwocky to be. There are bits and pieces of Pythonesque mayhem that work wonderfully, but other scenes fall flat or feel truncated, as if Gilliam wanted to cut loose and play it straight at the same time. He remains committed to the idea that the grimy world of the Middle Ages has a grotesque visual humor all its own, and one of the most mordantly funny bits has Dennis meeting a fellow cooper who, unable to gain employment, has simply cut off his foot and started begging with great success (the bloody foot, of course, is sitting right with him—how did this film get a PG rating, again?). Gilliam and cinematographer Terry Bedford compose some genuinely gorgeous imagery, and the film feels much more expensive that it actually was (in interviews, Gilliam has spun some great stories about trying to make use of standing sets and conveying huge castle interiors with little more than black velvet and carefully placed lights). In that regard, Jabberwocky is a triumph of economical ingenuity, but one can’t help but wish that its oddball balance of absurdist humor and straightforward fantasy-adventure felt more of a piece.

Jabberwocky Director-Approved Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary from 2001 by director Terry Gilliam and actor Michael Palin
  • Making-of documentary
  • Video interview with creature designer Valerie Charlton
  • Audio interview with cinematographer Terry Bedford from 1998
  • Selection of Gilliam’s storyboards and sketches
  • Original UK opening sequence
  • Trailer
  • Essay by critic Scott Tobias
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateNovember 20, 2017

    Jabberwocky underwent an intense restoration in 2017 by the BFI National Archive and The Film Foundation, with funding from the George Lucas Family Foundation. The original 35mm camera negative and other original film elements were scanned in 4K and then digitally restored, and Criterion’s Blu-ray presentation looks superb. Jabberwocky has a distinctly of-its-era visual style that is heavy on darkness, contrast, desaturated color, lens flares, and intense lighting. The transfer maintains the film’s slightly rough, grainy look, but eliminates virtually all signs of age and wear that marred previous home video releases. The disc features a newly created DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel mix that was made from the original monaural magnetic multitracks. The more expansive sound field benefits the film quite a bit, with the jousting scenes, Jabberwock attacks, and the final battle providing a much richer, more enveloping sonic experience. Criterion offers a broad range of supplements, most of which are new, although they also include the audio commentary by Gilliam and actor Michael Palin that was recorded all the way back in 2001 (it’s still a great listen, which is why there was no reason to record a new one). Criterion has produced a new, 41-minute retrospective documentary that includes entertaining and informative interviews with Gilliam, Palin, producer Sandy Lieberson, and actor Annette Badland. We also get a new 15-minute video interview with Valerie Charlton, the special effects designer who designed and built the Jabberwock, which also features quite a few of her personal behind-the-scenes photographs. We also get to hear a 20-minute excerpt of an audio interview with cinematographer Terry Bedford by David Bedford, in which he discusses his work on both Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Jabberwocky. Also included is the opening sequence from the original UK cut of the film, which differs from the version seen in U.S. theaters (the cut of the film included on Criterion’s disc is actually a combination of the two versions); a selection of Gilliam’s storyboards and sketches; a trailer; and an audio recording of Michael Palin reading Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky.”

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    Overall Rating: (2.5)

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