CAPSULE: JABBERWOCKY (1977)

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FEATURING: , Deborah Fallender, Max Wall, John LeMesurier, Harry Corbett

PLOT: Disowned by his father, young Dennis Cooper travels to the big city; through circumstances circuitous and deeds unintentional, he saves the kingdom from the monstrous Jabberwocky.

Still from Jabberwocky (1977)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Long-time stalwart of the strange Terry Gilliam was just getting on his own feet with this, his first solo outing as a director. That said, there are a number of oddball moments, characters, and set-pieces; however, Jabberwocky is more on the straightforward side of things—with spikes of silliness—-than it is an Out-of-Left-Field-Terry-What-Are-You-Doing? spectacular.

COMMENTS: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” In the case of Dennis, the mind-blowingly unlikely hero of Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky, “greatness” clings like a limpet to the rotting potato our hero carries religiously throughout the movie. After an unpleasant experience co-directing with ‘s for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Gilliam seems to enjoy his newfound freedom to chaotically putter through a movie that, although occasionally uneven, brims with life in every scene.

A menace lurks in the forests and farmlands, viciously devouring victims before spitting out their skeletal corpses. What brave hero will save the good folk of the kingdom? Why, none other than Dennis (Michael Palin), a bewildered little man obsessed with stock-taking and other trappings of commerce. When his father, a venerable craftsman, casts him from his home, Dennis travels to the capital city to find his fortune so that he might be worthy of the hand of the piggish and unseemly daughter of Mr. Fishfinger, a seller of fish (!) who is, along with the merchants and clergy of the besieged city, keen to see that the rampaging monster keeps the swarms of peasants captured in its walls. Dennis woos the kingdom’s dotty princess (Deborah Fallender), pursues the fearsome Jabberwocky, and reluctantly endures a happy ending.

Not quite modulating his animator sensibilities, Terry Gilliam effectively makes a long-form, live-action version of the cartoons that brought him fame with the Python comedy troupe. The grittiness of medieval life is on full and absurd display as Dennis has run-ins with fanatical penitents, encounters a smilingly self-dismembering beggar, and is ushered around the chaotic city milieu by the director’s smirking machinations. Standing out amongst this cartoonery is a scene where a hungry Dennis pursues a rogue turnip first dropped by a merchant, then batted about by a series of passersby. Jabberwocky bears witness to the silly side of the Dark Ages’ dirtiness. (Indeed, one’s suspicion of ‘toonish buffoonery is confirmed by Terry Gilliam in the movie’s commentary).

No, Jabberwocky isn’t terribly weird. There is too much of a smiling sensibility lying atop, below, and at the surface for any disorientation. And no, Jabberwocky is no landmark directorial debut, but more a qualifying lap for Gilliam’s subsequent projects. A cast of characters who knows no other life and comically shrugs off all adversity undercut the despair of starvation and filth. The end result feels like “Tom & Jerry’s” Hard to be a God. Gilliam would go on to make weird and wonderful movies where his hero’s unlimited humanity blasts through a wall of farcical nihilism; with Jabberwocky, we still see a giggles-take-all attitude from the legendary filmmaker.

DVD INFO: Criterion provides, again, pleasant run-of-the-mill thoroughness. Lifting the charming commentary from the previous 2001 DVD release, they add a contemporary interview-documentary involving Gilliam, Palin, and others (all of whom, separately, go on pleasant tangents about the symbolism of potatoes), as well as a more in-depth bit with the film’s beastie designer, Valerie Charlton. Toss in a few odds-and-ends like the (bizarre) trailer, an audio interview from the late ’90s with  cinematographer Terry Bedford, and the obligatory fold-out essay in the disc case and you’ve got yourself a special release. And, oh yeah, the glorious images of this glorious movie have been upgraded and cleaned up for glorious “4K Blu-ray”. Huttah.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Gilliam’s monster, when we finally see it, is so hideous a thing that we can only be grateful this film is played for laughs. It still offers some genuine chills, together with a jarring sense of otherness that has become a feature of his work, a perfect complement to Lewis Carrol’s surreal poetry.”–Jennie Kermode, Eye for Film

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