* Prices may differ from that shown
It's almost traditional to start a review of Jabberwocky with a warning and I'm not one to break with tradition, so here goes. Despite starring Michael Palin and being written and directed by Terry Gilliam, Jabberwocky is NOT, repeat NOT a Monty Python film. If you had to put a label on it, then you could say it's the first proper Terry Gilliam film and, as such, is closer in tone to Brazil or The Fisher King than it is to Holy Grail or Life of Brian.
The reason so many reviewers are at pains to point this out is because it's really, REALLY important that you understand it . If you expect the glorious stupidity of Holy Grail or the superb satirical humour of Life of Brian, then you are going to end up sorely disappointed. If you view it as Gilliam's first attempt at establishing a darkly comic fantasy world, then you can appreciate it on its own merits.
Jabberwocky tells the story of young Dennis Cooper, an apprentice head over heels in love with the ghastly Griselda, who scarcely notices his presence. To win her love, Dennis sets off for the city to make his fortune, arriving in the middle of a tournament to find a champion who will kill the vicious Jabberwocky in return for half the kingdom and the hand of the Princess in marriage.
Jabberwocky takes the basic plotline familiar from many a fairy story and plays around with some of the conventions to turn it into a darkly comic tale. This is where Gilliam is at his strongest - in taking familiar, comfortable ideas and putting his own unique spin on them.
There is much to enjoy in Jabberwocky. From Palin's likeable lead, the daft and underplayed humour through to the Middle Ages period setting, Jabberwocky bears all the trademarks of a director who has a clear vision of what he is trying to achieve. Gilliam deliberately clashes the slightly absurd nature of the story with a reasonably realistic portrayal of Middle Age society - lots of dirt, grime and abject poverty in evidence. The film has a very strong visual identity and at times is as much a social/historical commentary as it is a comedy.
Gilliam pays a lot of attention to detail, to getting the little things right; not just in the period setting, but in everything else. Jabberwocky is one of those films that improves with repeated viewing, because you start to notice this attention to detail and Gilliam's attempts to re-create medieval England. As with so many Gilliam films there is often as much going on in the background as there is with the main actors - something which only becomes apparent on repeat viewing. This might be something relatively simple that underlines the attempt to show some sort of historical realism (peasants getting on with the daily drudgery of their lives). Other things are little comic cameos or humorous asides that have nothing to do with the main plot, but which will make you smile.
Whilst there is much to like it has to be said that the film displays all the hallmarks of a first time writer/director; someone who has a clear idea in their own mind about what they are trying to achieve, but lacks the skills or experience to fully articulate them. As such, Jabberwocky is a patchy affair containing some excellent moments and others which are not quite so good. At times it can be very funny, with Gilliam's sense of the absurd shining through (the Kings loquacious herald, the announcing of the tournament). Sadly, there are also many moments which fall flat on their face and don't quite work.
Jabberwocky is also very uneven intone and pacing and can feel somewhat disjointed. The plot doesn't really make a whole heap of sense (which is not surprise; it's not really meant to), which leaves it feeling slightly dissatisfying as a narrative. You get the impression that this is little more than a string of scenes pulled together with a vague common theme running throughout them, rather than any real attempt at coherent plotting. Despite being relatively simple, the story can often get lost amidst everything else that is going on.
The cast of Jabberwocky is littered with big names and the cast list reads like a Who's Who of 1970s British comedy. Michael Palin takes the lead and is highly likeable as the dopey Dennis an innocent abroad with a totally naive view of the world. It's a fairly standard Palin performance, but no worse for that. Harry H Corbett is excellent as a randy squire to one of the competing knights whilst John Le Mesurier's superior and aloof Chamberlain to the King is also worthy of note. Again, Le Mesurier is doing nothing new (this is merely a medieval version of Sergeant Wilson from Dad's Army), but it fits perfectly with the script and the other performances. His excellent double act with Max Wall's King Bruno the Questionable is also a highlight.
It's just a shame that with so many stars of British comedy at his disposal, Gilliam isn't able to juggle them all effectively or give them a reasonable amount of screen time. Some characters get lost in the mass of things going on, others disappear for too long and you wonder what on earth they have been up to in the meantime. As with so many other elements of the film, the cast and characters show a lot of promise, but that promise is never quite fulfilled, perhaps because of the relative inexperience of the writer/director.
At the end of the day, Jabberwocky feels a little like an unfinished project. There's a lot to like: the setting, the characters, the absurd humour, but it never quite feels complete. Jabberwocky is one of those films that's OK to watch from time to time and will mildly entertain you; but it also feels like a dress rehearsal for better things to come.
Director: Terry Gilliam
Running time: approx. 105 minutes
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012
This is a review of the dvd.
'Jabberwocky' was Terry Gilliam's first film away from the Python's, though it does have Michael Palin in the lead role and has a very 'Pythonesque' feel to it.
Set in the Middle Ages, the story concerns Dennis Cooper [Palin], a lovable halfwit whose father disowns him when he proves himself to be useless at Barrel making and is more interested in trying to make money. Dennis's inspiration appears to be Mr Fishfinger [Warren Mitchell] a kind of Del-Boy character that is always looking to make a fast buck. Dennis is in love with Fishfinger's daughter Griselda [ I thought the actress playing her looked fine, but she was meant to be 'hideously ugly'].
Dennis sets out for the local 'town' which is gated by Castle walls, only those with money are permitted entry, to try and make his fortune. In the forests outside the castle walls resides a mysterious monster [The Jabberwock] which is a constant worry for King Bruno The Questionable [Max Wall] and his aide Passelewe [John Le Mesurier]. They stage a series of jousts to see who will be brave enough to slay the 'dragon like' creature.
Dennis captivates [by accident] the heart of the Castle's Princess who mistakenly believes him to be a knight that has come to liberate/rescue her. The film's plot largely revolves around the role of chance and accident in Dennis's life as he stumbles into each new scenario.
The film has quite an enviable cast of British TV and Film actors from the 70s. Harry H Corbett has an amusing role as a randy squire who befriends Dennis and is the sworn enemy of the local Landlord [Bernard Bresslaw]. John Bird plays an annoying 'Herald' who keeps announcing everything the King is about to do before he does it. And then there's the double act of Max Wall and John Le Mesurier; 'Was that ok?'...........'oh, I suppose so darling......'
Despite this cast though, 'Jabberwocky' is a bit of a mess. It has a very rambling story which I found quite frustrating [explaining the plot concisely is not easy!]. It is also not as funny as I was hoping or expecting from such an established group of comedic actors.
The main problem is the script, characters come in and out of scenes or are suddenly killed off, if your attention is off screen for a second you will probably have missed something. The scenes with Max Wall and John Le Mesurier should have been amusing but are mostly quite tiresome and feel like padding. The film felt to me a lot longer than it's 100 minutes running time.
Having said all that there is much to admire in the film; the Cinematography by Terry Bedford is gorgeous showing the Wales scenery and Castles in a great light. Gilliam used 2 Castles: Pembroke and Chepstow, and is to be highly commended for making a film with a shoestring budget look this good. He really conjures up the grime and filth of the Medieval Ages and there is much use of the customary Python 'black humour' and also plenty of references to 'poo' to keep any teenager happy.
The trouble is, Gilliam already made a definitive comedy film set in this era with 'Monty Python and The Holy Grail', however much I tried not to think it, this did just play as a poor man's version of that. Palin, whilst a very capable comedic performer and presenter on TV, was not really strong enough as a lead actor to carry the film. It all felt like one mate doing another mate a favour, this also comes across in the excellent jovial commentary with Gilliam and Palin which is probably worth the price of purchase alone if you're a fan.
Considering that Gilliam went on to make 'Time Bandits', 'Brazil' and 'Baron Munchausen', 'Jabberwocky' is slightly disappointing by comparison, but as a debut solo feature film it is clear to see Gilliam's abilities in creating a fantasy world and making it come alive for the audience.
The extras on the dvd are quite good, there is the commentary which is essential for fans of Gilliam, Palin or Python, a storyboard to screen comparison with some of Gilliam's sketches and how they were put onto screen. And then the usual subtitles, scene selections and language options. I bought this dvd about 5 years ago and in all honesty have only watched it twice, when I bought it and for this review. So I can't claim this to be one of my favourites, but it is interesting to see the genesis of Gilliam's film style which he had started on his previous film 'Holy Grail', co-directed with Terry Jones, and developed further here.
You can buy the dvd for about £5 on Amazon UK, but I would suggest a rental first unless you are a big Python/Gilliam fan.
A medieval comedy-adventure starring Michael Palin and directed by Terry Gilliam, Jabberwocky is an episodic adaptation of Lewis Carroll's surreal poem. Having previously directed Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975) with Terry Jones, Jabberwocky marked Gilliam's solo directorial debut--is it coincidental that Jones is killed by the titular monster in the opening scene? Palin plays the naive Dennis Cooper, a man seeking his fortune just as the Jabberwocky is laying waste to the country. It's much the same world as Holy Grail, with all the trappings of the romantic Hollywood epic being liberally coated with literal and metaphorical muck. Palin's character causes unwitting mayhem wherever he goes--one stand-out scene involves the destruction of a maintenance shop for damaged knights-in-armour--though as much humour comes from exposing the foibles of the people he meets. And those people constitute a roll call of contemporary British comedy: Harry H Corbett as a sex-mad squire, Warren Mitchell's Mr Fishfinger, plus Annette Badland, Max Wall, John Le Mesurier, Rodney Bewes, John Bird, Neil Innes and John Gorman. Jabberwocky lacks the hilarity of Holy Grail, but is a consistently amusing, exceptionally atmospheric, gleefully gory yarn which points the way to Gilliam's Time Bandits (1981) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). On the DVD Jabberwocky is distinguished by an engaging and enthusiastic commentary from Gilliam and Palin, in which they delight in the amazing cast and ponder how such a handsome film was made. Otherwise the extras are a short sketch-to-screen comparison, three posters and three trailers (only one for Jabberwocky). Transferred anamorphically enhanced at 1.77:1, the picture is variable, with many beautifully lit indoor scenes looking fine, while other exterior, daylight shots appear washed out. There is some minor print damage. The sound is a revelation for a low-budget 1970s film originally released in mono. Given a full Dolby Digital 5.1 remix the tremendously detailed, rich and involving soundscape really brings Gilliam's world alive and puts many much more recent and expensive titles to shame. --Gary S Dalkin