After the success of 1974’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, co-director Terry Gilliam struck out on his own and embarked on his first solo project with 1977’s Jabberwocky. Though he’d later develop a very distinct style and achieve success with flicks such as 1981’s Time Bandits and 1985’s Brazil, with Jabberwocky we just see him start to get his feet wet. No, it wasn’t his first directorial effort, as he co-led Grail with fellow Python Terry Jones, but Jabberwocky represented his initial solo foray.
As such, Jabberwocky often feels somewhat tentative. The movie provides a tilted version of the Lewis Carroll tale. The fearsome titular creature spreads fear throughout a land, and their king (Max Wall) needs to find a way to deal with it. However, not everyone thinks this is a good idea, for apparently terror is good for business. Nonetheless, the ruler attempts to find a champion to eradicate the menace, and he offers his daughter, the lovely princess (Deborah Fallender) and half of the kingdom as reward for the demise of the creature.
Into this mess steps unambitious peasant Dennis (Michael Palin). He lives in a podunk part of the kingdom with his barrel-making father (Paul Curran) and he wants nothing more than to make some money off the business and marry Griselda Fishfinger (Annette Badland). Bizarrely, Dennis seems to adore Griselda despite that fact a) she has no interest in him, and b) she’s a fat, foul swine. Nonetheless, the relentlessly small-minded Dennis wants her, even after his father issues a deathbed denunciation of his son.
This loses Dennis the family business, so he needs some means of support if he’s to wed to disgusting Griselda. As such, he heads to the big city, where he eventually meets up with the princess - who totally ignores reality to embrace her fairy tale ideals and embraces him as her Prince Charming - and then embarks on a quest to slay the monster.
At its heart, Jabberwocky offers a skewering of the traditional fairy tale well before the modern appeal of Shrek. We have a “hero” who wants nothing more than to lead the most dull and uneventful like imaginable; when presented with some apparently glorious possibilities, he reacts in horror and wants nothing to do with them. We also have a princess who - like Shrek’s Fiona - anxiously awaits the arrival of her masculine savior but who - unlike Fiona - seems totally oblivious to any sort of reality. Gilliam casts the entire proceedings in a thick layer of filth that makes the realm seen in Jabberwocky almost unimaginably disgusting.
In fact, the only note I wrote to myself as I watched the film was “foul!” The level of grime is perversely admirable in a way, for it goes even farther than Grail to present a medieval reality far from the sanitized pearly whites of most Hollywood renditions. However, I thought he took it too far, as the filth simply becomes too heavy at times. Dirt turns into a character of its own, and the movie could be awfully disgusting, which took away from whatever other charms it may hold.
As for those possible charms, some of them exist, but Jabberwocky seems like a minor effort in the Gilliam pantheon; to be certain, it definitely doesn’t live up to the levels reached by many of his later works. I think much of the reason for this relates to the transitional nature of the flick. Gilliam wanted the movie to stand apart from the Python films, but we still found half of that group in Jabberwocky; in addition to star Palin, we get cameos from Terry Jones and from Gilliam himself. Granted, Gilliam would later feature Pythons in his other pictures; for instance, John Cleese showed up in Time Bandits, Eric Idle made it into The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and Palin appeared in Bandits as well as Brazil. No one seemed to regard those movies as extensions of the Python universe, even though Gilliam wouldn’t finally cut the cord until 1991’s The Fisher King, the first flick he directed that featured no Pythons.
However, none of those flicks starred a Python, and none stepped away from the Python tradition as gingerly. Like Grail, Jabberwocky often felt like a series of semi-related bits rather than one coherent narrative. Admittedly, it provided a more linear and cohesive tale than did its predecessor; indeed, it’s a much more straight tale than Time Bandits would be. Nonetheless, the latter was better told and somehow seemed to hold together better, whereas Jabberwocky came across as somewhat jumpy and jumbled; it just didn’t flow very smoothly.
I think the high billing of Palin also made it harder for Jabberwocky to leave the Python fold. Although as noted, Pythons appeared in many of Gilliam’s subsequent films, never again would one star in a flick not billed to the group. This created a totally different dynamic and allowed those movies to feel more like Gilliam and less like Python. Frankly, Time Bandits has a lot in common with Python offerings, but Gilliam somehow made the effort seem like something unique and unconnected with the group.
He couldn’t do that during Jabberwocky, and the film suffered as a result. Actually, perhaps the biggest problem with the flick was that Gilliam simply hadn’t developed fully yet. To be certain, we could see elements of the director’s style, but they seemed halting and tentative; he hadn’t developed enough confidence to give us his own vision and ignore the Python-related expectations. As such, Jabberwocky provided fits and starts of compelling material, but as a whole, it fell somewhat flat.
On the other hand, this is a “PG” movie that included full-frontal female nudity, so I heartily endorse it.
Jabberwocky appears in both an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen version on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen picture was reviewed for this article. Although watchable, the DVD seemed somewhat disappointing after the surprisingly clear effort for Holy Grail.
Sharpness generally appeared acceptable but unspectacular. Most of the movie came across as reasonably distinct and accurate, but many scenes looked moderately soft and bland. Those concerns weren’t extreme, but a lot of the picture simply lacked great definition. No jagged edges or moiré effects caused concerns, but print flaws were a major distraction. A mix of speckles, grit, nicks and hairs cropped up at times, while grain could become quite heavy. The level of defects never seemed tremendous, but the impression remained somewhat dirty much of the time.
Colors appeared drab and lifeless, though it could be hard to differentiate between production design and DVD transfer. Clearly Gilliam intended Jabberwocky as a dingy presentation, so it wouldn’t work with vivid and bright hues. Still, the yellowish look to the movie seemed too dreary and I thought the colors were pretty flat. Black levels also appeared a bit muddy, while shadow detail showed a little excessive thickness at times. Ultimately, Jabberwocky suffered partly from its origins and its era, but it still could have presented a more impressive image.
The DVD omitted the film’s original monaural audio, so instead, we got only a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. I regard that as a disappointment on a number of levels, one of which connected to the less than natural feel of this track.
On the positive side, music showed nice stereo presence. On the negative side, the remixers created a soundscape that lacked nuance and threw the action out of balance.
When monaural material gets adapted to 5.1, it tends to work best when kept modest in scope. Jabberwocky ignored that concept and gave us a soundfield that failed to keep the material in proportion.
This mainly became an issue due to the usage of the surrounds, as they seemed excessively active. Some of these elements worked well, mainly connected to the monster itself – a few scenes with those “action material” brought out a nice sense of the menace.
However, the remixers didn’t know when to leave well enough alone, so quiet scenes used the back speakers in an overly prominent manner. Through much of the film, extraneous, unnecessary information came from the surrounds, and those moments made the mix an unbalanced and distracting affair.
Audio quality fared better, though even there, imbalance reigned. That was because parts of the track “felt old” while others “felt new”, and the two sides failed to mesh.
I strongly suspect the remix actually used re-recorded stems for a lot of the effects, as they came with a robust feel not typical for material from 1977. I don’t mind the more “modern” fidelity on its own, but I do dislike the unnatural way in which these components connected to other parts of the track.
Speech remained intelligible and concise, though some edginess interfered at times. Music became the best part of the mix, as the score offered fairly nice range and clarity.
Those effects just didn’t work for me, though. They tended to seem too loud and “canned”, so they didn’t deliver convincing material. The track’s superficial charms seemed enough for me to give this a “C”, but I didn’t much like it.
While Jabberwocky doesn’t pack a slew of extras, it comes with one fine piece: an audio commentary from director Terry Gilliam and actor Michael Palin. Both men were recorded together for this running, screen-specific track, a fact I believe makes it unique within the world of Python and related endeavors; I don’t think that another audio commentary ever featured more than two or more Pythons together. The result is a nice commentary that offers a lot of interesting notes about Jabberwocky.
Not surprisingly, Gilliam dominates, and Palin actually becomes a distraction at times. Occasionally he tends to talk over Gilliam with less-than-valuable asides, and this causes problems when Gilliam’s going over useful data. However, this is a minor concern, and the track usually progresses in an entertaining manner. As always, Gilliam provides a frank appraisal of the work and he gives us a good appraisal of the work. I thought a bit too much of the piece was devoted to telling us who’s who among the onscreen talent, but in between Gilliam and Palin add lots of solid facts about the movie along with many good anecdotes. It could be hard to tell if they love or hate Jabberwocky, but the commentary was an interesting piece nonetheless.
Sketch to Screen Comparisons provides a neat variation on the usual storyboard presentations. Here we find many drawings from Gilliam’s pad, and these concept images are followed by corresponding shots from the final film. The piece lasts six minutes and 55 seconds and offers a good look at Gilliam’s preparatory work.
The Poster Gallery splits into three international options. We find one poster each from Japan, Poland, and the UK. More would have been nice, but these were cool to see. Lastly, we get the film’s funny theatrical trailer. The clip starts in a very odd way, and it ends with a spoof of the marketing techniques for Hitchcock’s Psycho. It’s definitely worth a look.
Between his work with Monty Python and his more successful directorial efforts, Terry Gilliam made Jabberwocky, a baby step away from his Python origins toward his future self. Though sporadically interesting, the movie seemed like a disappointment as a whole; I liked some parts of it but it never coalesced into a compelling or entertaining whole. The DVD offered drab and mediocre picture, a messy soundtrack and a minor roster of extras highlighted by a fine audio commentary. Devotees of Python and Gilliam will want to give Jabberwocky a look, but others probably would be better off with other offerings from those sources.