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Jabberwocky [DVD] 
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It is the middle of the Dark Ages, ages darker than anyone had ever expected. A horrendous monster casts a dreadful pall of fear over a once-happy land. The first solo directorial feature of visionary Terry Gilliam (Brazil, The Fisher King), JABBERWOCKY stars Michael Palin (TV’s “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”) as Dennis Cooper, a young villager who wants nothing of adventure. When his father passes, Dennis goes on a journey, leading him into a town where a dragon named Jabberwock is on a murderous spree. Can Dennis kill the dragon and save the kingdom?
A medieval comedy-adventure starring Michael Palin and directed by Terry Gilliam, Jabberwocky is an episodic adaptation of Lewis Carroll's surreal poem. Having previously directed Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975) with Terry Jones, Jabberwocky marked Gilliam's solo directorial debut--is it coincidental that Jones is killed by the titular monster in the opening scene? Palin plays the naive Dennis Cooper, a man seeking his fortune just as the Jabberwocky is laying waste to the country. It's much the same world as Holy Grail, with all the trappings of the romantic Hollywood epic being liberally coated with literal and metaphorical muck.
Palin's character causes unwitting mayhem wherever he goes--one stand-out scene involves the destruction of a maintenance shop for damaged knights-in-armour--though as much humour comes from exposing the foibles of the people he meets. And those people constitute a roll call of contemporary British comedy: Harry H Corbett as a sex-mad squire, Warren Mitchell's Mr Fishfinger, plus Annette Badland, Max Wall, John Le Mesurier, Rodney Bewes, John Bird, Neil Innes and John Gorman. Jabberwocky lacks the hilarity of Holy Grail, but is a consistently amusing, exceptionally atmospheric, gleefully gory yarn which points the way to Gilliam's Time Bandits (1981) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988).
On the DVD Jabberwocky is distinguished by an engaging and enthusiastic commentary from Gilliam and Palin, in which they delight in the amazing cast and ponder how such a handsome film was made. Otherwise the extras are a short sketch-to-screen comparison, three posters and three trailers (only one for Jabberwocky). Transferred anamorphically enhanced at 1.77:1, the picture is variable, with many beautifully lit indoor scenes looking fine, while other exterior, daylight shots appear washed out. There is some minor print damage. The sound is a revelation for a low-budget 1970s film originally released in mono. Given a full Dolby Digital 5.1 remix the tremendously detailed, rich and involving soundscape really brings Gilliam's world alive and puts many much more recent and expensive titles to shame. --Gary S Dalkin
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This was Gilliam's first movie as a director independent of the Python team, although it possesses many Python influences. Filmed at Chepstow and Pembroke castles, as well as in a Welsh quarry for the battle scenes against the monster, one cannot help but make immediate associations with `Monty Python and the Holy Grail', which Gilliam co-directed with Terry Jones two years before. We have the same medieval setting, the same bad teeth and bodily functions, the same mud and grime. (Gilliam says in the accompanying commentary that the film is so textured that you can smell it.) There are also the same witty names: Dennis Cooper, Griselda Fishfinger, King Bruno the Questionable (son of Olaf the Loud), the Blessed Sisters of Misery, and Saint Tallulah's Day. The main difference from `Grail', though is that this time there is a through-story to be told rather than a collection of sketches cobbled together to make a film. And there is also political and economic symbolism aplenty.
In the commentary, which he shares with the lead Michael Palin, Gilliam references Tarkovsky's `Andrei Rublev', Scott's `Alien', Boorman's `Excalibur', and even Lucas's `Star Wars' as influences or stylistic equivalents. He describes his film in terms of a cinematic Brueghel, and goes on to reference other artistic influences including Bosch and Caravaggio. He adds that he deliberately kept half the screen often in darkness so as to allow the imagination to flourish, at least for those with imaginations. (Really, of course, the reason is lack of finance for anything more fanciful: Gilliam always fills the screen if he has the resources to do so.)
Although Michael Palin plays the lead role in `Jabberwocky', and Terry Jones plays a brilliant walk-on part as a trapper of animals in the forest and one of the monster's grisly victims (dig the trapper's medieval equivalent of the baseball hat), these are the only fellow-Pythons; the rest of the cast comprise some of the greatest names of English comedy at the time: Max Wall, John le Mesurier, Harry H Corbett, Warren Mitchell. (In the commentary we learn that even Dudley Moore was due to play a role.) Minor parts are played by the likes of John Bird, Gordon Kaye, Graham Crowden, Rodney Bewes, Brian Glover, and Bernard Bresslaw.
Other very good extras on this disc include a selection of the different posters for the film, and sketch-to-screen comparisons.
We follow the adventures of Dennis Cooper, besotted with love for the gruesome Griselda Fishfinger, as he is disowned by his dying father and goes off to seek his fortune in the city. The city is however besieged by the eponymous monster, so the king (played to wonderful effect by Max Wall) arranges a tourney to select the best knight to kill the beast. Of course, Dennis is carried along and wins the day.
Doresn't sound much of a story, does it? - but the intricately detailed sets, the wonderful staged humour and brilliant direction make this a cut and a half above anything else in the genre. It knocks the Monty Python films into a cocked hat - and they are GOOD! Not for nothing did this film win the best comedy at Montreux. Particularly good performances from Max Wall, John leMesurier, Harry H Corbett and of course, Michael Palin, who just IS Dennis.
I don't understand how a great film like this has been allowed to fall out of circulation. I'd give it 10 stars if I could.
Visually there's a certain similarity to `Holy Grail' (this is far more accomplished); in comedy terms, the closest thing is Palin's quirky, understated `Ripping Yarns' - but that doesn't have the same deep, ineluctable strangeness. In all honesty there's no other film like this. Just see the `you might also like' films trailed on the disc - `First Knight' and `Knight's Tale'! Good grief.
I'm also indebted to the commentary for the following fascinating trivia: TG's `diamond mine' character was originally to have been played by Dudley Moore; both the Black Knight and Palin's master are played by David Prowse (of Darth Vader fame), voices by Max Wall (King Bruno); and John Boorman apparently showed the film a dozen times to his crew before making Excalibur. How's that for a recommendation?
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