The Criterion Reviews: “Jabberwocky” (1977)

The Criterion Reviews: “Jabberwocky” (1977)

The Criterion Collection Reviews return! This year I hope to make a more substantial effort in getting Criterion reviews out at least once a month or more. I find these films to be interesting, extremely fun to delve into, and well worth the time and energy to seek out and review as I feel that many of them don’t really get the attention that other more mainstream films of lesser quality garner in the current cinematic landscape. As a brief refresher, to date I have reviewed 6 Criterion releases:

  1. “Night and Fog” (1955) — An extremely short but poignant anti-documentary of a film that takes a direct and hard look at the Holocaust that is pure, honest, and almost irreproachable as a thesis on the horrors of its subject matter. — 9 / 10 
  2. “House” (1977) — A strongly layered horror film on the nature and symbolism of Japanese pop culture after the dropping of the atomic bomb hidden behind a cinematic cluster of gore, silliness, and cheese. — 8 / 10 
  3. “Shoah” (1985) — Almost the opposite of ‘Night and Fog’ but just as powerful in taking a long look at the Holocaust (and I mean a VERY long look) through the eyes of those who witnessed and survived it and letting that memory of death affirm the importance of life on a cinematic canvas. — 10 / 10 
  4. “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” (1979) — A strong comedy from one of the best comedic teams that ever existed with a deeply controversial history and a lot to say about the nature of religion as a general concept and its influence on humanity for better or for worse. — 8 / 10 
  5. “Heart of a Dog” (2015) — A personal directorial pet project with implications across the board for all of us and our connections to each other with a strong meditative emphasis on animals, memory, and what becomes of us and our influence after death. — 8 / 10 
  6. “Vampyr” (1932) — A nightmare put on black and white celluloid from the mind of one of the greatest directors of the silent era that brought vampires and many other elements of horror iconography, atmosphere, and tone into the cinematic world. — 8 / 10 

It’s a strong list so far that I hope to add on to with time especially in terms of variety. For now however, we’ll take a look at a recent Criterion release strongly reminiscent of ‘Life of Brian’ even down to having the director and leading man come specifically from the Python troop. It’s a film that’s not as widely recognized as the Python escapades but it started Terry Gilliam’s career as a director which would lead him to other and bigger projects and it’s a dark little fantasy romp in its own right.

Created and released in 1977, “Jabberwocky” is a fantasy film in the vein of ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’. Close in setting, tone, and imagery to its’ predecessor and thus probably judged a bit harshly because of such association, it didn’t receive the same critical acclaim with critics giving it very mixed reviews upon release for its darker tone and less than comedic edge. Even today it doesn’t seem to have too much of a following and even I had never really heard of it before its Criterion Blu-ray release earlier last year. Honestly after giving it a watch, I can definitely see why. As a film, it’s definitely worth a look and some varying degrees of interests but I can very much tell why it’s not a favorite of anyone who it was meant to appease and satisfy.

The plot on the surface is a very simple telling of the classic poem: a demented monster called the Jabberwocky is terrorizing a Dark Ages medieval kingdom. A young man out of a peasant village is mistaken for a hero and sent to slay the monster, does so, and comes back triumphant with the monster’s head. While the film mostly sticks true to that overarching theme, what makes this film unique is in the details. The kingdom is not a gorgeous fairy-tale land but a dirty, slimy, dank and rotted city filled to the brim with disgusting, demented denizens of various faiths and beliefs. The hero is not a man searching for fame and fortune in the traditional sense but one that lives in squalor and wants to return to squalor with a less than attractive wife. The monster is not a famed and fantastic beast but an ugly, misshapen, and frankly pitiable creature that is slain in the most perfunctory way imaginable.

And this right there is the film’s point. “Jabberwocky” is meant to serve as a very well done subversion of what the traditional medieval fairy-tale is. Most tellings are fantastic, clean, and often very pleasant by the very aspect of their nature. However, this story turns it all on its head and plants into the drab and disgusting muck of reality. The Dark Ages were not a pleasant time for anyone and Gilliam revels in showing this to us in every frame on screen. It brings us as an audience to a place where this kind of story would take place in had it been in the real and somewhat historical time and brings us a subverted version of the tale in every way. It is very sharp and clever in its wit in how it delivers these moments as well from the hero feeling more imprisoned than exuberant at his triumphant victory to the gruesome and often grisly violence with blood spraying every main character abound. It turns convention on its head and shows how some of the romance of the period simply doesn’t and wouldn’t exist with this kind of a tale in reality. If we were judging this film strictly by this merit, then it would very much succeed as it exudes what it’s trying to accomplish and makes us feel every festering moment as a true look in to the looking class of the original poem.

However as an audience and as a critic, we have to judge it as an overall film and not just by what it wants to be and this is where “Jabberwocky” falters. This is a dark and gritty film with lots of misery and shadow on screen but not in a good way. Gilliam brings us a world and a kingdom where optimism is punished brutally and everything is cruel and ugly looking to see and listen to. When I think of this film now, I think of loud noises, lots of dirty crowds, unpleasant screeching, and blood and gore. I suppose it fits the tone and spirit of what he is trying to convey but it makes the film frankly hard to see and very unpleasant to watch even at its best moments. Combine this with the fact that the cinematography and shots are still very Python-esque and thus all over the place at times and it makes the flow of the film very off-balance and the world almost non-existent. We as an audience never really get a sense of the layout and feel of this world at all which even films like “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” succeeded at. Even with the simplistic plot that it is, it’s still very hard to follow and without the investment in what’s going on you simply don’t care. This extends to the cast as well which as a whole is fairly forgettable. Michael Palin does his damndest in the lead role of Dennis in his style of earnest comedy that warms the film in every scene he’s in. His arc also brilliantly fits in with the subversive tone of the entire film in that his ultimate journey and victory is almost purely accidental and feels like a failure for him considering what he set out to do. Outside of that, none of the main cast stuck out or were worth mentioning even with returning Python members Neil Innes and Gilliam himself returning on camera.

That’s not to say it’s a complete failure of a film. Outside of the overall image and feel of the film, there are things about “Jabberwocky” that do work besides it’s inversive plot and feel. While it’s not uproariously funny (hell I would even argue it’s not that funny at all), there were a few moments that did get a giggle or two out of me with the humor especially in making mountains out of molehills around Dennis’ situations making me laugh. The gags are mostly well done though there’s significantly less than you’d think and the dialogue works well when you can hear it and understand it. You can very much tell that Gilliam is trying in his directorial debut and all of the individual pieces are certainly there and working to a degree. But it’s the overall image of the film that these pieces create that the ultimate sinking flaws are found in. The biggest damning flaw for me as a critic is that it’s nonsensically dull. In the course of watching even while I was admiring the good things about it, I was either bored, confused, or grossed out and nothing else in between. It has that darker edge that makes other films like this so great but none of the charm that’s necessary in making it loved or memorable. It didn’t endear itself to me at all and seemed more concerned with making it’s points clear which I don’t think Gilliam necessarily had the experience for at the point when he was making the film. I certainly didn’t regret the watch as what works works fine and it’s certainly a step up from other fantasy duds but I also wouldn’t say I enjoyed myself with it either.

FINAL VERDICT: “Jabberwocky” is the standard director’s first film with all of the pros and cons that come associated with it. Terry Gilliam manages well in his subversion of fantasy tropes with a good lead, clever gags, and many individual moments of good comedy and enjoyment. But as an overall film, these moments serve as only glimpses of brilliance under a dirty sea of murky visuals, loud noises, confusing narratives, and unpleasant sights that will turn off most fans it’s trying to associate with. It is worth a brief glimpse for fans of Terry Gilliam / ‘Monty Python’ but not one I would recommend much to anyone else unless you like being bathed in gore, muck, and boredom for an hour and a half. 

— 5 / 10 

Keep an eye out for more in 2018, film fans! It’s going to be one heck of a year! Until next time, ~Geronimo!!

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