Often considered to be the outcast of Terry Gilliam’s filmography, Jabberwocky occupies a unique place in Terry Gilliam’s career. It is his first solo movie (he co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail with fellow Python Terry Jones), and as such it seems as though Gilliam is trying to replicate the success he had with Python. He enlists fellow Python alum Michael Palin as the lead, and tries to replicate some aspects of Python humor, which sometimes fall short. This and the medieval theme of Jabberwocky makes it natural to compare the film to Holy Grail, and in this regard, the film does fall short. Even though this comparison is apt, this does not distract from the fact that Jabberwocky does contain its own merits and is an entertaining film to watch.
Based upon the poem by Lewis Carroll, Jabberwocky follows the tale of Dennis (Palin) a young man who goes to the big city in search of his fortune. While Dennis wants to live a normal life working as a barrel-maker and marrying his grotesque love Griselda, he is often metaphorically (and physically) pissed on by the world around him. Only through a series of misadventures does he end up becoming a hero and defeating the Jabberwocky monster that has terrorized the countryside. While this would be great for any movie hero, Dennis just wants to live a normal life as an anonymous worker, and not as some great hero who is forced to ride into the sunset.
This idea of the normal-mediocre man who just wants to be normal is replicated in later Gilliam films such as Brazil and it is interesting to see this idea first displayed in the film. Palin is absolutely suited to this role: he is naive, simple, and just wants to live a normal life but is always thrust into heroic situations through no fault of his own. His natural charm makes it easy for the audience to root for him and laugh at his “misfortune”. A notable example of Palin just wanting to live the simple life but failing miserably is the final scene where Palin, through slaying the Jabberwocky, is allowed to become the Prince and marry the Princess, even though all he wants to do is marry his ugly girlfriend and become a cooper.
As with his other films, Gilliam knows his visuals and knows how to get the most out of his camera. While the cinematography and set design is similar to Holy Grail, Gilliam is able to create unique shots and framing to create a whole other world. Take this picture below where Palin is fighting the monster; this shot is incredible and Gilliam knows how to shoot this scene with the right scale and light: it is clear that Palin is over matched by the monster and how he is struggling to lift his sword. It is also clear through the setting that the monster has ravaged the land and that light has left the land, physically and metaphorically. This is a stroke of genius on Gilliam’s to show the audience an epic battle scene in a light paced comedy.
While it is true that Jabberwocky could be faster-paced and contain more original ideas, it definitely is a film worth watching if not for Terry Gilliam’s great direction, good laughs, and Michael Palin’s amazing performance.