In 1977 Monty Python had made their TV series and their first film, The Holy Grail, but hadn’t yet brought us Life Of Brian or The Meaning Of Life. In amongst this came Jabberwocky, which wasn’t a Python movie (although their production company was involved), but marked Terry Gilliam’s first movie as a solo director, and starred Michael Palin and Terry Jones.
The result is a movie that’s semi-Python, with echoes of the zany, off-the-wall humour, but which is still its own beast.
Palin plays Dennis, an apprentice cooper in a fantasy medieval kingdom. He’s desperately in love with Griselda (Annette Badland), and so to prove himself – and after a falling out with his father – he sets off to the city to make his fortune.
The kingdom has a big problem though as a monster, the Jabberwock, is stalking the woods. The King (Max Wall) decides a champion is needed. While Dennis has no experience of combat, Dennis gets caught up in all this. But will it help him win the heart of Griselda?
Like much of Python, there’s a madcap quality to Jabberwocky. Although there is a plot, it’s a rather circuitous one that isn’t afraid of going off on zany, often downright silly, tangents. Unlike Python though, there are few moments of comic genius. That’s not to say it’s not fun though, as it’s zaniness and dark humour ensure it’s entertaining to watch, even 40 years on.
Despite being made when the Pythons were still in their first active phase, Gilliam still had enormous difficulty raising the funds for Jabberwocky. It was a very low budget film, but as has almost become Terry’s trademark, he makes a little go a long way. Although there are some obvious rough edges, it still manages to create a convincing, dirty, medieval world, helped by a cast of British comedy veterans. And while it’s mainly interested in being silly, it does have a few serious points to make, such as the ‘businessmen’ who think the Jabberwocky is good for business and don’t want it killed, despite the misery its causing.
There’s also a nice addition for gay audiences in that despite this being a 1977 fantasy film, the King and his Chamberlain (Max Wall and John Le Mesurier) are a couple. They don’t make a big deal of it – indeed, it’s something you could easily miss – but when you notice it adds an unexpected sweetness to the movie. There’s no laughing at them and no one comments on it – it’s just something that is – and has a naturalness to how it’s included that even many modern movies can’t manage.
As this is a Criterion Edition, the Blu-ray comes with some good special features, including a really interesting, brand new documentary. Gilliam, Palin and actress Annette Badland all talk about the making of the movie, giving some fascinating insights into its creation. With a commentary and a few other worthwhile inclusions, it’s a good selection of features. The film has also recently been restored, ensuring that while not a crystal clear as modern released, it looks better in HD than you might expect.
Overall Verdict: Crazy, silly and rough around the edges, Terry Gilliam’s zany solo directorial debut is still a lot of fun – and looks good in this new release.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac