Friday, March 18, 2011

Jabberwocky (1977)
--- fantasy

Dir: Terry Gilliam

After his years being a part of the Monty Python troupe, Terry Gilliam took his first foray into solo film making. Having come from an animation background and co-directing some of the early Monty Python feature films with fellow alumni Terry Jones, he was well prepared. The evidence of things to come is here in the film "Jabberwocky". Gilliam pokes fun at the "dark ages" through the use of Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem "The Jabberwocky" from the book "Alice Through the Looking Glass".

The film opens a lot like a horror film, with a poacher (Terry Jones) in the woods stalked and killed by the Jabberwocky. We then follow our hapless hero Dennis Cooper (played by Python's go-to leading man Michael Palin), the son of a barrel maker, who instead aspires to be a stock taker. When his father passes away, practically cursing Dennis with his last breath, he goes off to the city for work. Before he leaves home, he stops to assure his fair love, a very crude rubenesque girl named Griselda Fishfinger and her uncouth family, that he will return to take her in marriage. With that, Dennis is off to find employment.

We next see the king in his bedchambers, and as Gilliam and the Python troupe are notorious for, they show the quite unsightly shady side of the powers that be to comedic and absurd effect. Though done in this very Brit humour style, it still rings all too true. King Bruno the Questionable, son of Olaf the Loud, et cetra, must not only contend with the common folks pining for food and work, but for the fear of a ravaging monster stalking the countryside. His chamberlain, Passelewe, suggest a tournament to the death for the hero to be tasked in finding a killing the monster. He goes to tell the princess with his plan to give her over in marriage to the champion. Meanwhile, Dennis can't even enter the city. Left out in the cold, rainy outskirts in the forest, Dennis sees some vagrants enjoying some soup. He offers to collect some firewood from the forest in exchange for a portion. However, Dennis runs into another vagrant (Gilliam himself) who was also kicked out of town earlier in the film, claiming to be in posession of a diamond, which is really just a rock. When the man nearly tries to bludgeon Dennis, he's suddenly rescued by none other than the Jabberwocky, which snatches up the vagrant. Dennis escapes with his life.

In the morning, Dennis manages to get into town. He arrives just in time to witness the formal announcement of the joust competition which will reward the victor the hand of the princess in marriage and half of the kingdom. Dennis stumbles upon a job with a squire of a knight participating in the tournament, which goes from bloody battle to hide-and-seek. Dennis goes from one crazy adventure to another. He is accused of adultery by his boss' landlord, almost burned alive by religious fanatics, and when the real squire goes to play hanky panky with his boss' wife, he sends Dennis in his stead.

As they depart on their quest, they happen to run into some bandits harassing the Fishfinger family. They rescue them from the bandits, but the Fishfinger family isn't all that grateful to Dennis. At this point, Gilliam also infuses some religious criticism as we see the church plotting to save the monster because it has been good business. They send their own Black Knight out to stop the champion knight from completing his task. The Black Knight easily kills the champion knight, leaving his squire, Dennis alone to fend for himself, that is until our titular character returns for a final appearance.

"Jabberwocky" is a silly comedy to say the least. Gilliam's film does somewhat stick close to Carroll's vision, as the poem is recited in certain scenes. There's also a scene during the knight's tournament where Passelewe asks his king something and addresses him as sire and they get into how they word should be used. This is something that Carroll addressed in his book as well. Special effects technician John Brown (Willow, Sleepy Hollow) and the uncredited work of Valerie Charlton (Dark Crystal, Temple of Doom) does an impressive job of creating the titular beast on a low budget. Though it doesn't favor the art of John Tenniel, I was actually quite surprised upon first viewing of this film that they did such a good job of it. Considering nowadays we're so used to pitiful CGI characters, it was refreshing to see just a guy in a creature suit with puppetry done correctly for once. That, of course doesn't look all that real, at least is interacting with the actors on screen. It helps to know Brown worked on the UK marionette classic show "Thunderbirds". I was expecting to see a better movie from Gilliam considering he had plenty of practice beforehand. Gilliam's visual style is all over the film, but the aesthetic one expects is not quite here. "Jabberwocky" is an okay first film effort from Gilliam, but in comparison to his following features, it pales.