Dennis is a young man during the Dark Ages and he is ready to set out on his own. Of course, he sets out to the nearest city only to find that they won’t let anyone in because there are no available jobs. To top it off, there is a monster running loose in the woods killing everyone it meets.
“Jabberwocky” is to my mind, the first Terry Gilliam (“Brazil”) film. Sure there was “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” but that lacked many of the larger themes for which Gilliam is known. MPatHG is more of a Monty Python movie than a Gilliam one.
As first films go, it’s remarkable good. “Jabberwocky” begins with many of the same fantasy tropes that legends, myths, and fairy tales are made of. A young man, frustrated by a father who doesn’t understand him and a woman he can’t seem to help but be in love with, sets out to make a name for himself in a land ravaged by a terrible beast. The Jabberwocky!
He goes on various adventures in the big city and surrounding environs, even managing to rescue a princess in a castle, though he remains true to his first love. In the end he slays the Jabberwocky and is rewarded. A pretty straightforward tale.
As in many of Gilliam’s lesser works, of which I would say this is one, the main character, Dennis (Michael Palin, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”) is not the most interesting. It is the world and supporting characters that draw your attention. There’s the beggar who cuts off his foot to make himself more pitiful and the king who loves his jousting tournaments so much that there are no more knights in the kingdom to kill the Jabberwocky. Yet, as the characters seem to be at first glance no deeper than the black knight who won’t give up even when he has been totally dismembered, there is a depth to them that isn’t present in Gilliam’s earlier characters.
The funny little bits of the film are also starting to move away from the Monty-Python-esque absurdities toward symbolisms that hint at larger themes. No one will look at the characters of this film and say, “wow, did I ever identify with that guy,” but they will see a fair amount of deft social commentary that felt like it could have been written yesterday. The machinations of the nobles, the king and his distractibility, the lack of care for the peasants of the realm are all indictments of society’s tendency to look after their own so exclusively that they eventually turn into a group of ostriches with their heads buried.
Unfortunately while the film is funny, it doesn’t flow well. Many of the scenes feel like they could happen in almost any order and still work just as well. I suppose that’s still a bit of the skit-writer in Gilliam but it makes for an aimless experience.
I certainly wouldn’t recommend this movie to everyone but for someone like me who is interested in Gilliam as a person and wants to track his career and the ways he has grown as an artist, it’s a must watch because it bridges the gap between his early comedy days and his later more widely accepted critically accepted works like “Brazil.”
Gilliam is definitely setting out on his own in this film and struggles a bit to find his place in the big city of film making but it all works out ok because you know he eventually does slay the Jabberwocky.
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