Terry Gilliam's Jabberwocky (1977) is an odd little movie from a director known for odd medium-sized ones. Originally conceived during the production of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (which Gilliam co-directed and co-starred in), this medieval black comedy serves as the director's first solo effort outside of the popular comedy troupe. He would later direct landmark films like Brazil and 12 Monkeys; assuming you've seen those and are curious about Gilliam's debut, don't set your hopes too high and you won't be disappointed. It's a production that feels like baby steps before the full sprint of Gilliam's more refined efforts, though his unique visual approach and comedic Python roots are on display here.
Not exactly based on Lewis Carroll's poem of a similar name, Jabberwocky recounts the story of an eponymous dragon that terrorizes the hapless citizens of medieval England. One the most hapless is Dennis Cooper (Python co-member Michael Palin), a young tradesman who sets out to make a name for himself after his disappointed father dies. His disinterested love interest Griselda and her father, Mr. Fishfinger, barely acknowledge his departure. From there, Cooper bumbles through a series of mishaps on his way to (and within the walls of) a bustling castle town that's also home to a jousting tournament. A winner gets the privilege of battling the Jabberwocky. Losers get a lance through the chest.
Many segments of Jabberwocky feel like Holy Grail leftovers, which may not necessarily be a bad thing. From certain character interactions to the film's medieval backdrop (and, of course, the sporadic appearance of a silly and/or pitch-black sense of humor), it plays more like a cousin to its infinitely better-known relative. Early on, the film has no trouble maintaining interest as the stage is set: Palin's Dennis Cooper is an entertaining fellow, the threat of the beast is restrained and Gilliam's trademark visual style keeps our eyes interested. His sarcastic portrayal of bureaucracy is most certainly on display here, even though it was substantially more refined in later efforts like Brazil. Yet this episodic adventure is paced rather slowly, making the initial viewing of Jabberwocky seem like every one of its 105 minutes.
Despite the film's agonizingly slow pace at times, Jabberwocky has its moments. Michael Palin turns in another likable performance even when it feels like he's still in Python mode, while the film's impressive set design and general appearance defy its tiny budget. Nonetheless, this appearance isn't helped much by Sony's new "Choice Collection" DVD-R, intended to replace the 2001 DVD that's gone out of print in recent years. Oddly enough, it's pretty much the same disc aside from an altered visual presentation, which may or may not represent the director's original intentions.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
In a rather strange turn of events, this new "Choice Collection" DVD-R of Jabberwocky contains neither the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer nor the 1.33:1 pan-and-scan butcher job found on Columbia's 2001 DVD. What we do get is a 1.33:1 open matte presentation of Jabberwocky...a visual compromise that, nonetheless, doesn't present the film in its original aspect ratio. This does appear to be taken from the same old master as the 2001 release, as evidenced by the moderate amount of dirt and debris, inconsistent black levels and an abundance of film grain...but, believe it or not, there are minor benefits. Gilliam's compositions don't seem to be harmed by the extra space, while the lack of zoom-in softens a few of the transfer's visual shortcomings. This is still a lackluster effort (especially by 2014 standards), but this "alternate presentation" of Jabberwocky at least serves up something a little different.
DISCLAIMER: These compressed and resized screen captures are strictly decorative and do not represent this title's native 480p resolution.
Everything else is identical to the 2001 DVD, for better or worse, beginning with the audio. Two options are provided: a rather gimmicky-sounding Dolby Digital 5.1 track and a DD 2.0 Surround mix that's closer in tone to the film's original mono. I definitely prefer the more scaled-down track, though both offer relatively clear audio and a few nice moments of ambiance at times. The Surround track is far less subtle (especially during the sporadic action scenes), but it's all a matter of personal preference. Optional English, Spanish and French subtitles are included during the main feature.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the basic menu interface is attractive, easy to navigate and loads quickly. Sub-menus are present for each selection, while the DVD-R itself appears to be locked for Region 1 players only. This one-disc release is packaged in Sony's typical "Choice Collection" style, which includes a keepcase, themed artwork and a promotional insert.
Though not listed on the packaging, this DVD-R includes the same supplements as the out-of-print DVD release. These recycled extras include an entertaining Audio Commentary
with Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin, plus a short Sketch-to-Screen Comparison
of Gilliam's storyboards, a Poster Gallery
and the film's Theatrical Trailer
. This is a short but sweet collection of extras (especially considering the film's cult status), but some newer material would've been welcome.
Jabberwocky is most certainly an acquired taste, even within the boundaries of Terry Gilliam's polarizing body of work. It's unquestionably darker than Holy Grail while retaining a similar backdrop, though it's obvious that this is the work of a director just beginning to find his own voice. I can't say I enjoyed Jabberwocky from beginning to end, but it definitely had its moments...so established fans of Gilliam (and, to a lesser extent, Monty Python) should still give it a spin. Sony's "Choice Collection" DVD-R is an odd replacement for their out-of-print DVD, especially because of the "new" visual presentation. Whichever version you choose, Jabberwocky is more of a weekend candidate than a blind buy. Rent It.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.