Runtime: 1 hr 45 min
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Michael Palin, Harry H. Corbett, John Le Mesurier, Warren Mitchell, Max Wall, Rodney Bewes
A transitory work.
Review by: ShaneBurridge
Added: 8 years ago
It's taken some distance to view Terry Gilliam's solo directing debut with an unbiased eye. Viewers expecting a wacky, anarchic Monty Python production (the misleading advertising didn't help) were disappointed upon the film's release - they'd already seen medieval squalor in the comedy team's previous film, and here it was again, but this time well short of laughs, and Pythons. The casting of only one of the troupe (Michael Palin) had tipped off audiences that this wasn't going to be full-fledged Monty Python fare and also planted suspicions that the film wasn't 'good enough' to attract involvement of the whole group. Without his fellow regulars to provide their customarily barbed interplay, Palin is left with a fairly straight role, in which his character travels from the country to the city, meets all manner of eccentrics, and finds himself in a number of different scrapes, all the while being told of an unseen monster that is terrorizing the villages nearby. Even though Palin has an engaging presence we don't really care what he does or what happens to him during his misadventures - he doesn't act so much as react, and it's not even of any concern to us that he doesn't realize he gets a 'happy ending' in the film's final frames.
It's plain that by casting many comedians familiar to British audiences Gilliam was intending to make a humorous film. The only problem is that despite its silly tone it doesn't *look* funny. Gilliam shoots JABBERWOCKY as if it were a European art film; it's gorgeous to look at in places - many scenes with single-source onscreen lighting are like oil paintings, and the authentic locations have presence - but the cast looks like it was recruited from a Pasolini movie, the budget-concious framing is claustrophobic, and there's way too much smoke. There are absurd moments scattered throughout the story, but they come off as concessions to Python fans, with Gilliam more interested in a visceral approach to the story. Another problem with JABBERWOCKY is the viewer assumption that if it isn't going to be a Python comedy then it would at least fall back to being a monster movie. There is a pre-credits attack, but the beast itself doesn't appear until the final reel, and everything inbetween is filler. For what Gilliam is trying to do with JABBERWOCKY, the monster is irrelevant and could have easily been gotten rid of in deference to his portrayal of medieval life. Unfortunately this setting is used as an excuse for frequent toilet humor (literally), which is a step down from the wit and satire that Gilliam, Palin, and their contemporaries are better known for.
Putting aside the specious connection to Lewis Carroll's poem 'Jabberwocky', there was no real need for the two Pythons to visit the Dark Ages a second time. It appears that Gilliam still had an itch to scratch after getting the directing bug from MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL and felt that GRAIL's dramatic locations and visual backdrops had been pushed aside by its flippant style. Rather like JABBERWOCKY's hero, Gilliam's solo outing is more of a reaction than an action, but perhaps a necessary one for him to make in order to hone his craft and reposition himself as a film-maker with a vision. It's a transitory work, simultaneously a nod goodbye to his TV roots and an indication of newer directions to come. Now that Gilliam has well established himself in the canon of cinema, JABBERWOCKY has become an interesting work to revisit, and one in which we can see his singular talents starting off at the level of grass roots. And straw. And mud. And dust...