Released hot on the heels of their 2-disc special edition set of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Columbia/Tri-Star Home Video dug Terry Gilliam's 1977 film Jabberwocky out of the vaults to see new life on a shiny 5" platter. There's little doubt that the release of Gilliam's feature-length solo debut so closely to that of Holy Grail isn't coincidental, with as much space devoted on the cover art to its director's previous film as the title itself. Considering that Jabberwocky is sandwiched in between the brilliance of Holy Grail and Time Bandits in Gilliam's body of directorial work, it should hopefully go without saying that my expectations were rather lofty.
Perhaps inspired by but scarcely based on the Lewis Carroll poem invariably used to demonstrate onomatopoeia in high school English classes, Jabberwocky stars Michael Palin as Dennis Cooper, a bumbling stock taker toiling away at the family's thoroughly exciting business of making and repairing barrels. Disowned by his father and rejected by Griselda Fishfinger, the slovenly object of his affection, Dennis leaves for an unnamed city to eke out a living before returning for his one true love. Unbeknownst to Dennis, the city has been ravaged by the presence of the voracious Jabberwock, cutting off trade and leaving most of the peasants starving outside the castle walls. Prospering merchants and self-serving religious leaders try their best to convince the indecisive King Bruno the Questionable (played by the late Max Wall) to leave the monster be, though to no avail. Bruno sponsors a bloody tournament to seek out a champion to best the Jabberwock, with his shut-in daughter's hand in marriage and half his kingdom as a considerable reward. Dennis soon finds himself mixed up in the jabberwackiness, not surprisingly resulting in a climatic battle to the death with the creature.
I have a vague recollection of seeing the final moments of Jabberwocky at some point on television as a child. I seem to remember not being wholly disappointed, which I suppose means I missed the first hour and a half. Gilliam takes a decidedly Farrelly-ian turn in Jabberwocky, with most of what passes for humor based around the scatalogical. That's not to say that this is Gilliam's Me, Myself, and Irene -- there are a couple of good laughs to be had, among a number of sight gags that I mentally recognized as 'funny' but didn't warrant any sort of audible acknowledgement. The story plods along at an agonizingly slow pace, and the near total lack of wit or humor only adds to the misery. The visuals are really the only redeeming aspect of the film, with gorgeous, if grimy, detailed sets and incredible cinematography that belie its tiny budget.
Video: The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation of Jabberwocky seems rushed, as if the decision to release this disc alongside Monty Python and the Holy Grail were made at the eleventh hour. The video quality is poor, with apparently precious little effort put towards spiffing up the image at all. Heavy grain is frequently present, and dust and assorted specks are generously sprinkled throughout, particularly in the senior Cooper's deathbed scene and the film's concluding moments. Shadow detail is murky at best, and black levels are anemic, often taking on more of a gray or purple hue. The image often appears soft and lacking in detail. Strangely, these problems are inconsistent, with crisp, clear shots followed by one that is battered and nearly unrecognizable. Of course, what I consider to be "poor" for a DVD from a major studio isn't all that bad, almost certainly a cut above previous VHS tapes rotting in garages and video store shelves. Still, it falls significantly below what I've come to expect from a Columbia/Tri-Star catalog release, joining CTHV's Obsession as one of the most disappointing DVD transfers in my sizeable collection. For the sadistic, a full-frame version is included as well.
Audio: Effective Dolby Digital 5.1 remixes of mono films are few and far between, and Jabberwocky lifelessly slumps along with the lesser entries in that largely unremarkable crowd. The vast majority of the surround activity comes off as forced and gimmicky, and quite a number of the new effects sound quite a bit different from the dialogue and music, as if they were newly recorded for this release. Dynamic range is sorely limited, and LFE usage is so infrequent as to barely warrant a mention. I didn't give the 2.0 stereo surround track a spin, though I'd hope it would be more representative of the original theatrical presentation of Jabberwocky than its 6-channel counterpart.
Supplements: Though my distaste for the film didn't have me looking forward to watching Jabberwocky again with commentary, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed listening to Palin and Gilliam chat about the film. Though light on technical information, the two offer quite a few hysterical on-set anecdotes, as well as some honest critiques on what they felt worked and what didn't. I wasn't expecting Gilliam to be so supportive of the frequently low-brow humor, especially since bodily functions played significantly smaller roles in his other films. Palin and Gilliam keep conversation lively throughout, with pauses both brief and infrequent. Easily more entertaining than the movie itself, this commentary is a must-listen for anyone purchasng or renting this disc.
Along with a full-frame trailer are sketch-to-screen comparisons and a quick peek at poster art from various countries.
Conclusion: Jabberwocky is at times mildly amusing, but it's by a considerable margin my least favorite of Gilliam's largely impressive ouevre. A disappointing film combined with a lackluster presentation on DVD screams 'rental' for all but Python and Gilliam completists. Rent it.
Random Aside: Featuring art of the monster so prominently on the back of the DVD cover would seem to me to be a mistake, since that the Jabberwock remains hidden until the final moments of the film.