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Jabberwocky (1977, UK)

16/03/2011

Director: Terry Gilliam   Starring: Michael Palin, Harry Corbett, John Le Mesurier

Terry Gilliam. Former Python, mastermind of madcap animation, scourge of the studio system and wildly inconsistent film director. For me his films can be divided into two broad categories, the genius (Brazil, Time Bandits, Twelve Monkeys, Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas) and the indulgent and incoherent (The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). Jabberwocky has its feet planted firmly in the latter category.

Made inbetween the legendary Monty Python And The Holy Grail and the infamous Life Of Brian, Jabberwocky is a lacklustre, rambling mess of a film. Perhaps it was Gilliam’s attempt to prove that he could do something as successful as Holy Grail without the input of the rest of the Python’s, a sort of bloody minded need to try and go it alone that was the root cause of it’s general lack of quality? It certainly comes off as a sort of Python Lite, not different enough to stand up on its own merits but not good enough to match the gut straining humour of Holy Grail. Casting Michael Palin in the lead role probably didn’t help. National treasure he may well be, but his oafish buffoonery as Dennis the Cooper’s Son is far too close to his work with the Python’s for the film’s own good. It leaves you with the feeling you are watching the longest, most pointless, least funny Python sketch ever written. Harry Corbett does well in one of the few decent roles in the film (a luck-chancing, blowhard squire) but serves only to make you more interested in what becomes of him than of Dennis, leaving you wondering why Gilliam didn’t make him the film’s focus in the first place.

What is more baffling is that behind the underwhelming story there are actually some rather good ideas. The local peasant population have sought the protection of the King’s Citadel as they are being terrorised by the evil Jabberwocky, a horrific dragon-like beast that can strip a man to the bone in a matter of seconds. There is a lot of meandering over King’s champions, beast slaying, yadda, yadda, yadda. There is an interesting side-strand to the plot though where the city merchant’s are desperate for the King to refrain from having the beast slain because the fear of the local population is extremely good for business. This theme is extended into the notion of commerce versus craftmanship and how “civilisation” and “progress” bring with them bureacracy and greed at the expense of art and skill. Sadly, these ideas are mere sketches that are lost in the deluge of pointlessness that comprises the rest of the film.

Maybe the idea of basing a film on Lewis Carroll’s poem was just a little bit too ambitious. The original poem is made up of nonsense verse and is rather short, pretty much the only thing that translates directly to the film being the tale of a horrible beast that is slain by a lone hero. Of course there is a strong argument that the nonsense element has been translated directly to the film as well. Maybe this is the real reason it feels like the babblings of a loony. Whatever the reason, it is one for the Gilliam completist only and even then it should be approached with appropriately low expectations. If you want my advice, I’d suggest fast-forwarding a few years to 1981’s sublime Time Bandits and leaving this alone, a regrettable footnote on an otherwise intriguing career.

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