During the Dark Ages, a young barrel-maker (Michael Palin, A Fish Called Wanda) leaves his small village in search of a better life. The naive peasant arrives at the capital city, where he is quickly mixed up in the King’s plan to destroy a deadly creature, the monstrous “Jabberwocky,” that has been terrorizing the kingdom.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“It is the middle of the Dark Ages. Ages darker than anyone had ever expected.”
Monty Python alumnus Terry Gilliam’s (Time Bandits and The Fisher King) solo directorial debut is an irreverent revisionist take on medieval morality plays. There are segments of the movie that could be considered tasteless and the pacing is a bit on the slow side, but it never runs out of saucy gags and inventive ideas.
Though it sometimes feels like a collection of outtakes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Jabberwocky has its own identity. The difference between director Gilliam and his classmates is obvious: While The Pythons hated conventional storytelling techniques, Gilliam tells a coherent story, albeit in an irreverent way.
I can’t say I prefer one approach over the other. However, I believe Gilliam’s style suits cinema better, which is probably why The Pythons only made a few films, while Gilliam has been able to carve out a fine cinematic legacy. Anyhow, Jabberwocky shouldn’t be dismissed as a Python copycat — it’s the first film of a bona fide auteur.
But, is the movie any good? Although this is hardly one of Gillian’s best efforts, I liked it a lot. I tend to agree with The New York Times film critic Vincent Canby who called it “a monster film with heart” and “a wickedly literate spoof.” Granted, Jabberwocky isn’t a laugh-a-minute comedy. It’s more like a witty, slow-burn satire.
The film was inspired by a poem written by Lewis Carroll and introduced in his book Through the Looking-Glass, the sequel to Carroll’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The screenplay was written by American novelist Charles Alverson (Goodey’s Last Stand) and director Gilliam, who also has a small (and hilarious) role in the movie.
I loved the film’s look more than anything else. The sets and costumes are grungy, the cinematography is drab, the movie looks kind of disgusting, but I wasn’t turned off by its ugliness. On the contrary, I truly appreciated the fact that Gillian went against the common practice of romanticizing the Middle Ages. The director puts movies like The Lion in Winter (1968) and Braveheart (1995) to shame!
I even liked the lack of sophisticated visual effects. The title monster looks like a paper mache marionette. It shouldn’t work, but it does. This is a very low-budget production, and I was impressed with how Gilliam turned the movie’s lack of resources into an asset. The cheap-looking visuals fits perfectly with the story’s surrealist vibe.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
How do you determine whether a movie comedy is good or bad? Film critic Gene Siskel had a simple system: it’s good if you laughed, it’s bad if you didn’t laugh. It’s probably a bit more complex than that. The truth is that you can’t really predict how a viewer is going to react to a joke. All I can say is that Jabberwocky made me laugh. In any event, this Terry Gilliam movie is worth watching at least once. Color, 106 minutes, Rated PG.