Newest Review: ... where Gilliam is at his strongest - in taking familiar, comfortable ideas and putting his own unique spin on them. There is much to enjoy... more
And Now for Something Completely Different
Member Name: SWSt
Advantages: A strong cast of 70s comedy heroes; strong visual identity
Disadvantages: Many of the characters, ideas and humour feel underdeveloped
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
Summary: A taster for what is to come from Gilliam