Jabberwocky captures Terry Gilliam's transition period between his work with Monty Python and a career as a director of fantasy narratives. The entire feature is abundant in transitional difficulty because it meanders between the tones of Terry Gilliam's earlier works and his later works.
Jabberwocky seems to be unable to decide whether it wants to be a serious fantasy film or a parody of one. The film is ripe with sporadic jokes, but the tone of the feature is very serious as are many of the themes. As a result I didn't know whether to laugh or take the film as a serious social criticism, ultimately doing neither. Mostly, the entire film like it was a pretentious mimicry of British sitcom The Black Adder (1983) as it follows a kind-hearted but submissive and ignorant man with a bowl-cut in a medieval setting. However, The Black Adder was clearly a sitcom while Jabberwocky seems unable to determine its tone. Elements of Monty Python still make their way into the film through sporadic jokes and ridiculously silly situations, but it feels far too numb by a film which is genuinely not funny. Jabberwocky is not a funny film, and it has none of the intellectual brilliance of Terry Gilliam's later features. There is no character development to assist anything along the way, nor is there a complete acknowledgement of just how ridiculous the film's concept is.
It's hard to tell what the real expectation should be for a film like Jabberwocky, but it just feels like an awkward and directionless series of sketches which have no consistent narrative to tie them together. It seems as if there is an attempt at universe building present in the film to connect everything, but everything is scattershot and uninteresting. And one of the most memorable issues with the film is the fact that the actual relevance of the titular Jabberwocky is inert. It is a creature mentioned sporadically throughout the story without playing any essential role in it, and then it presents itself out of the blue at the end of the film as an oversized marionette puppet whose appearance is difficult to discern from how it is presented on the film's poster. Audiences familiar with the Jabberwocky's relevance in Lewis Carroll narratives are likely to expect something more significant from the fantasy mind of the man who gave the world such marvels as Time Bandits (1981) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). Admittedly it is only his first film and much smaller in budget, but Terry Gilliam has worked wonders with small sums in the past. With Jabberwocky, he simply uses the mythological creature as a token hook to draw audiences into a lacklustre echo of his days in Monty Python.
As far as being a stylish experience, Jabberwocky feels far too low budget to gain any real credibility. Maybe some audiences will find amusement in the fact that the director is able to create a rather medieval setting without spending all that much, but this was already done previously with Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) which he also co-directed. The similarities are undeniable, and I spent the majority of the film in belief that Terry Gilliam had simply recycled the leftover set pieces from his previous work so that he may churn out another film in the same manner Roger Corman did with The Little Shop of Horrors (1960). However, the cinematography really burdens the film. With everything being shot up way too close with rather murky colour scheme, the film ultimately feels to small in scale to achieve its fantasy ambitions. There is also an abundance of shake in the camera; not in the same manner that contemporary action films suffer from, but the camera is constantly moving without any smooth tilts. As a result, there is a constant feeling on instability in the mood. I can certainly admit that I believed the universe in the film and had an appreciation for the scenery, set pieces and costume design. But given that neither the story nor the cinematography knows how to utilise these in any kind of effective manner.
Ultimatel, it's hard to tell whether Jabberwocky is meant to be a film that retreats from Terry Gilliam's Monty Python roots or embraces them, because it seems to do both and ends up in an awkward limbo as a result. You'd think that with fellow Monty Python alumni Michael Palin in the leading role there would be at least some sense of effective humour in the film, but this was not the case. This is heavily due to the fact that almost every other character in Jabberwocky outside of the protagonist just comes and goes on random occasion with no consistent relevance to the story. They don't develop anywhere or do anything aside from making a lame attempt at random jokes, and none of them have any landing. Jabberwocky really never had the chance of being a serious narrative, so if it went alongside the Monty Python theme a lot more then perhaps it would have landed some credible success. But despite all of Michael Palin's efforts, it couldn't.
But Michael Palin really does give it his all. Despite the script's lack of development for his character, he really captures the innocent and lovable nature of Dennis Cooper. He carries a very sweet nature to him without being excessive in conveying the character's vulnerabilities, displaying the potential for dramatic material to function in Jabberwocky. He is very smooth and consistent with his line delivery and has strong chemistry with every fellow actor, as well as engaging with the universe around him in a very consistent manner. He makes a believable character in a film where he is surrounded by one-dimensional others
Despite Michael Palin's good-intentioned leading performance, Jabberwocky is an awkward misfire from Terry Gilliam with several awkward attempts at the comic nature of his earlier work and none of the intellectual brilliance from his later films.
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.
All mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe.'
A stunning British cast of all stars and a style so obviously Gilliam mixed with classic Monty Python, all very familiar and reassuring when you watch. You know just what you're gonna get and you know its gonna be damn dark, grim, dirty, gross, unique and very creative. Gilliam is so good at creating Medieval/Dark Ages visuals with his sets, costumes, use of light, use of locations and wild imagination, plus without huge amounts of money. Yes it does look very much like 'Time Bandits' and 'The Holy Grail' which does seem a little similar/repetitive, but there are some many nice touches with that bleak eerie atmospheric look that you just can't help but enjoy it.
The characters do feel slightly cliched and again a bit too Python-esque but they are all fleshed out so well by the classic cast, helped along with brilliantly cheap yet effective costumes, props and sets. The story is your basic Prince Charming or 'knight slaying monster' type fable, with some wickedly devilish twists. I love how the Princess (Griselda Fishfinger) in this is a fat ugly female who doesn't like Palin's character at all...until he becomes the famous monster slayer and then she wants his ass. The fact that Dennis Cooper's (Palin's character) father hates him for being a wuss and the way Mr Fishfinger treats him like crap, until he becomes famous. The character names are brilliant aren't they...Mr Fishfinger, Griselda Fishfinger.
There are other clever distorted fairytale elements here too, the way wealthy town merchants don't wish to help the King fight the Jabberwocky because it brings them much revenue. The local Bishop is happy to let the terror continue as it brings in lots of donations for the church and a local skilled tradesman can't find work so he cuts off his foot to become a beggar. This proves so successful he cuts off his other foot also.
The film does feel a tad dull and strung out through the middle, perks up towards the finale obviously as we wait with baited breath to see the monster. Its all about the monster really isn't it, the quirky bits in between are fun if typically overused Gilliam type stuff but really you just wanna see how this creature will appear.
Some glorious gooey moments throughout are the highlight for me with some really nice makeup/effects using good old fashioned methods. The mauling and eating to death of a lonely pleasant in the woods at the start is fantastic stuff! very simply done but so effective and really gory. Love how Gilliam doesn't shy away from showing the gory remains. The Jabberwocky in the end is also nicely done, kinda like a large Muppet, the old man in a suit routine. Nicely designed but I'm sure will look hokey to some now.
The film is pretty dated now but its amazing how well it stands up today. Everything really does still look good and quite authentic in that typical Python-esque way. I adore the dark gallows humour in this film, I'm sure all Python fans will do so too, its a style that isn't really seen anymore...at least not in comedies. Its all so very Monty Python, I realise I say this a lot but it is! Gilliam never liked how his work is always compared to Python, sorry Terry. But kudos for creating a perfect gnarly misshapen fairytale of grimness n gloom.