1970s, 3/4, Comedy, Review, Terry Gilliam


Image result for jabberwocky poster

#10 in my Ranking of the Terry Gilliam films.

I probably shouldn’t like this movie quite as much as I do. It’s loose and overlong, but it’s also great to look at and really funny. Terry Gilliam’s first solo feature film as a director is both a part of and a step away from his time in the Monty Python troupe, especially in relation to their first feature film, The Holy Grail. It’s set in a similar time period with a similar visual aesthetic, uses some Python actors (in particular Michael Palin, who plays the protagonist, Dennis), and a similar viewpoint on how to approach the past (irreverently). And yet, the humor is very different, more visually focused than based on dialogue, and the film overall just feels very different from the more madcap Python retinue. There’s a nastier edge the flies through the film from beginning to end.

The story carries what would become a certain trademarked looseness that Gilliam would become very well known for. Largely, you can take the film and find two prominent threads running through it. The first is Dennis, the cooper’s son who can’t cooper and gets cast out to the big city to find his fortune. The second is the royal response to a monster attacking the countryside and the peasants streaming into the city for safety. Both go on meandering tangents (that are often very funny) before converging at the end with Dennis taking on the eponymous Jabberwock.

It’s obvious out of the gate that Gilliam approaches his material like an animator. Frames are carefully constructed with an eye towards power dynamics, relationships, and basic aesthetics. The world that the movie takes place in is ugly as a counterpoint. The streets of the city are filthy. The water that Dennis rows on to see his beloved is where the family throws their trash and defecates. The landscape is ruined. However, when paired with Gilliam’s ability to frame things interestingly, the odor of the visuals, so to speak, never overpowers the viewer. Gilliam’s also playful with his visuals, especially when it comes to the smallness of the King Bruno the Questionable compared to those around him and Dennis’ relative powerlessness in the wider world.

Dennis himself is a curious main character. He’s endlessly upbeat and completely out of his time. As a cooper’s son, he has no interest in the cooper’s trade. Instead, he’d rather try to find efficiencies in his father’s process to make things run smoother, but he has no real knack for that. He regularly destroys those things he tries to improve, and he never learns. He falls into his situations (like finally getting a meal from a squire) by bumbling into them. That’s how he becomes a knight’s squire, survives an attack from another knight, and kills the Jabberwocky. In a straight dramatic film, that would be curious at best, in a comedic fantasy, though, it further advances the central comedic conceit of Dennis’s character. His never learning is the point.

The other side of the story dealing with King Bruno the Questionable’s efforts to find a suitable knight to fight the monster. He settles on a joust to the death, killing over 60% of all knights in the kingdom in the process. There’s some very funny stuff in here (in particular visually around the jousts themselves), but it’s less focused. There’s stuff about the rich merchants of the city wanting to keep the city closed off so they can make more money, King Bruno’s herald and the herald’s replacement, some quick moments seemingly about religion, and a few other things. It’s messy in a very Terry Gilliam sort of way, typically engaging but getting tiresome after a while.

By the time Dennis had become the knight’s squire (looking a whole lot like Sancho Panza in a visual nod that is surely intentional and indicative of the ridiculousness of the knight he follows), I was a bit unsure of what I felt about the movie overall. And yet, I still couldn’t stop giggling at the movie’s comic sensibilities. Dennis struggling to understand what the knight wants, the brutal way the knight dies, Dennis’ run from the other knight, and the accidental way he kills the Jabberwocky all are darkly comic in a way that tickles me. The resolution of the story that sees Dennis still pining for the nakedly ambitious girl from his village (with nakedly ambitious father in tow) while he’s getting married to the princess is cut so quickly to comic effect that I found it infectious.

I can’t help but like this movie. If it weren’t as funny, I’d be less inclined to like it as much as I do for it really is a messy and overlong film. But, it still managed to win me over.

Rating: 3/4

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