directed by Terry Gilliam
(Python/Umbrella Films, 1977)

Re-released in a new 35mm print, Terry Gilliam's first solo directorial effort after Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Jabberwocky can be considered another masterpiece of macabre medieval comedy that complements its predecessor. Inspired by Charles Dodgson's (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll's) famous poem (referenced throughout the film), Jabberwocky is a farcical adventure set in a medieval kingdom strongly resembling England. It uses the basic fairytale plot -- poor peasant lad (Michael Palin as Dennis Cooper, the stock-taking son of a barrelmaker) goes to the big city to seek his fortune and winds up slaying the eponymous monster and winning the princess -- to satirize authority figures, social conventions and fantasy clichˇs by subverting expectations. All the while, to darkly comic effect, the movie wallows in very accurately depicted period filth and squalor, with people performing excretory bodily functions in public being a common sight and a source of much "brown humor."

Jabberwocky features superb performances by not only its star whose character's wide-eyed naivety makes him the perfect foil, but by Max Wall portraying the bumbling King Bruno the Questionable, John Le Mesurier playing the manipulative Chamberlain, Warren Mitchell as the wheeler-dealer Mr. Fishfinger, whose plumply pulchritudinous and gluttonous daughter Griselda (Annette Badland) disdains the protagonist's romantic yearnings, and Deborah Fallender, whose beauteous blond-bimbo princess seeks to wed the reluctant hero. Cameos by Terry Jones, as a poacher who gets gobbled up by the beast in an opening scene that cleverly parodies Jaws, and Gilliam himself, in the role of an eccentric who believes his (ordinary) rocks are diamonds, add delightful frissons of fun to the film.

Rich in visual detail -- dazzling costumes, pageantry, castle and outdoor settings juxtaposed with grime, gloomy interiors and poverty -- all superbly photographed, Jabberwocky uses these contrasts in its ironic way to portray the "nasty, brutish and short" lives of the era. Gilliam also employs exaggerated, slapstick-like violence (fist fights, brawls, the self-inflicted pain of religious fanatics) to parodic effect, especially in a hilariously over-the-top jousting scene where the mayhem and the gore and the crowds' glee elicits simultaneous mirth and dismay. Such grotesqueries, as if a Brueghel painting came alive with the protagonist's innocence in its midst, makes Jabberwocky both fascinating and fun. A fine score mixing classical, period and original music also helps create moods that make the whole thing work.

The film's theme -- a good and pure soul, for romantic ideals, at first hesitant then resolutely confronting the forces of ill -- foreshadows Gilliams's 1985 masterpiece Brazil in its portrayal of dogged innocence facing institutional corruption. Thus Jabberwocky holds one's interest as a milestone in the unfolding development of a filmmaker with a unique and delightfully warped vision and as a rewarding cinematic experience in its own right.

This re-release of Jabberwocky comes with an opening animated short, Storytime (apparently made in the late 1960s), stylistically anticipating Flying Circus segments. Its tripartite structure offers a deliciously wacky appetizer with its affable cockroach, refreshingly perverse Christmas cards sequence and ending with a very brief bio of Albert Einstein (not that one). Storytime plus the main course serves up a moviegoing meal that must be savored by Monty Python fans and ought to win over new ones willing to accept the uniquely bizarre humor that results when Gilliam puts his imagination to use in his chosen medium.

[ by Amy Harlib ]
Rambles: 17 November 2001

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