A word of warning: spoilers within.
I first saw Jabberwocky about five years ago. At the time I was not watching closely, and it rather passed me by: I found there to be too few jokes, and not enough overt fun. Looking back I can see why I felt this, but there's no denying that many people, myself included, have seriously under-rated this film.
The plot is simple, loosely based around Lewis Carroll's strange poem, quoted at intervals by a punch-and-judy man. A young, idiotic everyman, Dennis Cooper (Michael Palin), is disinherited by his father, rejected by the obnoxious fat girl that he inexplicably adores, and wanders to a squalid medieval city to find his fortune. Here, through a series of absurd adventures, he ends up meeting a dreadful monster that has plagued the countryside, the Jabberwock.
With Gillian directing and Palin in the lead role, this would first seem like a spin-off from the Holy Grail. It is, however, subtler and more serious than Monty Python, and lacks much of the levity of the Grail. Personally, I find John Cleese vain and excessive, and Eric Idle simply too chirpy for Arthurian legend, so I don't miss the absence of the usual Python team, especially since they are replaced by the likes of Warren Mitchell, John Bird, Max Wall and John le Mesurier.
This probably gives the impression that the film is somehow weighty and meaningful - it isn't. It is incredibly silly, and deeply crude. People wee off the battlements and eat rats on a stick. Deaths are frequent and ridiculously bloody. Many characters are consistently lecherous, and there is even a brief flash of total nudity from the gorgeous but crippling stupid Princess. Jokes aside, the squalor and baseness seems rather a feasible portrait of what life really was like in the middle ages. Goodness knows how it got a PG certificate!
The humour is difficult to categorise. On one hand, it is silly and childishly base - on the other, a lot of jokes are easily missed if you aren't watching closely enough. Added to this, the film is well-directed but not beautiful - the world is drab, muddy, and swathed in mist, and I can think of people who would find the visuals alone a depressing experience. And the Jabberwock itself looks hilarious.
All in all, Jabberwocky is a film that is very nearly a total success, and if it fails at all, that is only because there is so little like it that it doesn't fit easily into a slot. It feels as though a very silly don, or a rather scholarly child put it together, and it achieves that neat combination of the high and low that is rare in modern films. Overall, highly recommended and very unusual - and, if you watch carefully, at times very funny. 7.5/10.
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