I have long been a fan of Terry Gilliam. His Brazil is my favorite film of all time. But to say he’s been an inconsistent filmmaker is an understatement. I admire the fact that each of his films has elements to recommend them, but I would be lying if I said each film impacted me the same way. Additionally, the legendary production problems he faces are the sort of stories that scare would-be directors from ever getting behind the camera.
But Gilliam still walks behind it and creates a vision that cannot be claimed by anyone else. But has that vision always been present in his films?
Gilliam was famous long before he became a filmmaker as a member of the Monty Python troupe. He created the bizarre cutout animations that helped defined the look of the show. His directorial debut came in 1975 with the classic comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
However, that was not truly Gilliam’s vision. The film was co directed with Terry Jones and doesn’t represent the departure from Python that Gilliam would later take. Although Gilliam would use his fellow Pythons in starring roles, his films would showcase new obsessions that Python never gave him the chance to explore, such as aging, childhood, and why fantasy is so appealing to so many people.
Most people go directly to Time Bandits when discussing Gilliam’s directorial filmography. At best, Jabberwocky gets a mention in a fan-written Monty Python encyclopedia as a curiosity that doesn’t match the level of satire present in Holy Grail. But the film is getting a critical re-evaluation, or at least, the sort of re-evaluation that gets a film a Criterion special edition release. So is it time to revisit Gilliam’s debut as one of the most overlooked directorial debuts in film history?
I’m not sure, because I did not see any of Gilliam’s style in Jabberwocky. It was a movie where, for the first time, Gilliam didn’t seem to understand the joke himself. Lewis Carroll wrote the original poem as a way to mock his English professor colleagues at Oxford. He thought they were made for spending their lives researching epic poems that Carroll himself saw as nonsensical. The fact we can read the poem and (sort of) understand what it all means proves his point. To make a proper film out of it, the characters would have to be obsessed with a monster that doesn’t actually exist, fighting a battle that no one else is interested in acknowledging. It would be very similar to, ironically enough, Gilliam’s The Fisher King.
Here, however, Gilliam plays the medieval fantasy straight. Jabberwocky is almost identical to Holy Grail and its medieval England satirical targets. There is the accidental hero who doesn’t seem to know about the magical world around him. There are the attacks on the English social institutions that have lasted through the centuries and there are jokes about the gender roles that are present in the histories that are still passed down.
First, there are the performances, which are in the same vein as Holy Grail. Michael Palin is on autopilot as Dennis, a cooper’s son who is more obsessed with “taking inventory” than learning his trade. He’s completely shy in all social interactions and just seems to want everyone to like him. When they don’t (like his dad, screaming about how he’s a disappointment to him while dying) his mind is unable to process the information. It’s funny, but it’s the same character that Palin always plays. Brazil used Palin to greater effect as the friendly coworker who also specializes as a government torturer. Here, Gilliam doesn’t seem confident enough to toy with Palin’s character.
There are moments and ideas that Gilliam would carry for the rest of his career. Gilliam’s obsession with bureaucracy and the ruling class is evident in Jabberwocky. Most of the scenes with King Bruno the Questionable involve people arguing about why they shouldn’t kill the monster as it’s too good for the economy. That joke was used to better effect in Brazil, but here it’s strange because we never see the actual impact the monster is having on the citizens. They talk about it, and we see some people being killed by it out in the forest. But we never see the impact the monster is actually having. Even Dennis, who is accidentally tasked with killing the creature, is mostly oblivious about it. His story is more a “small town boy comes to the big city” plot, and he’s amazed by the advancements in the disgusting medieval village. He’s never properly introduced to those ideas the king is spouting and they never really seem to affect them. Yes, there are jokes about how he can’t find work as a skilled tradesman, but it’s undermined by the fact that we haven’t seen Dennis perform any skilled labor. There are a lot of good ideas in Jabberwocky but they never form a cohesive whole.
One bright spot of Jabberwocky is how Gilliam captured the dirty medieval aesthetic that went even beyond Holy Grail. The film looks delightfully filthy and leads to some great gags. My personal favorite involved the king and his family watching a jousting tournament, slowly becoming more blood-soaked as the knights battle on, and showing no reaction to the gore they’re covered in. Even Griselda, Dennis’s “love interest” (she clearly can’t stand him and Dennis is too oblivious to notice) has some great lines that match the filthiness. (“I’ve gotta scratch,” she exclaims and proceeds to do so as Dennis flirts with her.) I also did like how the Jabberwocky itself looked. It’s a great costume effect that looks like an effect from an old kaiju film. Tim Burton would have done well to study this movie before making his lifeless Alice in Wonderland. Jabberwocky is still a delight to look at, something not every Gilliam film can say.
But we already know that Gilliam was a visual genius before he made the film. I was hoping to see more of a break from his Python origins. But he leans too much on them and repeats some of their jokes the group had explored to greater effect. Gilliam has always been a visual filmmaker, and Jabberwocky shows his creative eye. But the film also feels too much like a first draft to a proper Gilliam film. He knows what he wants to attack and knows what he want to criticize. But his jokes mostly fall flat and those that do land are jokes that Monty Python did better. Thankfully Gilliam would have a do-over with Time Bandits, which explored his strengths as a filmmaker in much better ways. There are elements of Jabberwocky that are quite good. But I still found the film lacking.