Jabberwocky is Terry Gilliam's first feature film where he has sole credit as director. Gilliam had up to this point made a career as an animator, actor and occasional co-director for the Monty Python comedy team. Co-writing the screenplay with another python, Michael Palin, who also stars, this marks the humble beginning of what was to be an impressive career as director in his own right.
First off it's strange that Gilliam and Palin decided to have their first non-Python venture in a medieval setting, seeing as Monty Python's first and at the time only film (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) was also set in that period. Jabberwocky is a very different film, but there's still a problem with the setting because it looks unoriginal and invites comparisons with Holy Grail.
Perhaps surprisingly the biggest deviation from Monty Python is the style of the comedy. The Pythons mostly relied upon long drawn out comedy dialogues - the African Swallow routine, the anarcho-syndicalist peasants etc. In Jabberwocky each joke is a stand-alone one-liners, visual gags and most of all surreal and inventive ideas.
The real trouble with the comedy in Jabberwocky is that it simply isn't very funny. Some jokes are nice but not laugh-out-loud funny, others are just cringeworthy. The actual attempts to be witty are appalling. The neat little ideas and odd ways of portraying things, while never hilarious are the only things that really sparkle comedy-wise. The knights, for example, are cumbersome, inhuman looking things that, after a duel, have to be serviced like cars.
Jabberwocky's cast is a real treasury of British comedy acting, and not just the big names of the era either. There are a few older, respected figures like Max Wall and John Le Mesurier, alongside several rising stars such as John Bird and Gordon Kaye. Predictably, it is these supporting players who give us some of the best moments Max Wall's king in particular practically steals the whole show.
One of Jabberwocky's greatest strengths is in the way it looks. The cinematography is stunning. Using mostly natural light and candle light Gilliam works wonders, with scenes at one moment reminiscent of Renaissance painting, the next fully conjuring up the atmosphere of the English countryside on a damp and foggy morning (an effect achieved largely by filming in Wales, which is damp and foggy all the time). For a first time director (albeit one with plenty of "here-and-there" directing experience) Gilliam shows a good eye for shot composition and detail. This also has to be one of the grittiest portrayals of peasantry ever seen on film, with far more dirt, dung and ugliness than in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Jabberwocky is a film with plenty of good elements. It's just a pity the humour isn't one of them. It's a good thing that, after this, Gilliam's films were more driven by his unleashed imagination rather than trying to be out-and-out comedy his later pictures are much stronger as a result. The DVD release comes with a lovely, conversational commentary track from Gilliam and Michael Palin, and ironically this is actually far more entertaining than playing the film with its own dialogue.
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