Release Date(s)1977 (November 21, 2017)
Studio(s)Python Films/Umbrella Entertainment/Cinema 5/The Film Foundation (Criterion – Spine #903)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: A-
In many ways, Jabberwocky is very much a Terry Gilliam film. You can see his unmistakable directorial stamp on it with unorthodox yet realistic characters, a bizarre yet plausible world, unusual but ordinary situations, and subtext intermingled with surface-level personal statements. At the same, it’s also clear that he hadn’t quite shaken Monty Python out of his system when it came to his approach to filmmaking. It’s almost as if Jabberwocky was meant to be an intentional companion piece to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which is not terrible company to be in with at all. Yet for Gilliam, it was a stepping stone to other things – a way of expressing himself using Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical poem for inspiration, but also going beyond the confines of animation and sketch comedy.
Jabberwocky concerns a young man named Dennis (Michael Palin), a cooper apprentice in medieval times who would like nothing better than to break even with the least amount of effort, eventually wanting to marry the object of his desires, the heavy-set and uncaring Griselda, but also earning the approval of her father along the way. Realizing he must go to the city in order to achieve this, he makes his pilgrimage there in search of work, accidentally finding himself on the receiving end of a princess’ affections. Circumstances then lead him to potentially having to face off against a large creature known as the Jabberwock, which has been killing the kingdom’s citizens with some regularity.
When it comes to authentic medieval filth and grime, no film has ever really come close than Jabberwocky for its sheer amount of grit and muck, the kind of which no historically set film from the same era would have ever dared to portray (other than Holy Grail that is). The story itself is also a kind of backwards fairy tale of sorts. Dennis is no knight in shining armor and the princess is no perfectly fair maiden. In fact, she’s a bit mad, locked away in her tower and obsessing over fanciful stories about daring men rescuing celibate young ladies from dastardly villains. Dennis, meanwhile, wants none of what she has to offer, never aspiring to anything more than earning a decent wage and living a humdrum existence.
Along the way, a colorful cast of characters make their way through the film, often popping in for a quick scene or two with laughs in tow. The most outlandish moment occurs during one of the jousting tournament scenes. While the battle happens off camera, heaping amounts of gore are tossed at the king and the princess, all without blinking an eye as if everything is normal. It’s moments like this that keep bringing you back to Jabberwocky. It’s not the kind of film that you adore immediately after one viewing, but it definitely sticks with you, enough to keep you coming back. With its mix of slapstick and unconventional fantasy elements, it’s certainly one that’s worth seeing more than once.
In need of a Blu-ray release for quite some time, Criterion comes to Jabberwocky’s rescue with a new 4K restoration from the original 35mm camera negative and other additional film elements, which was carried out by the BFI National Archive and The Film Foundation and was supervised by Terry Gilliam himself. It easily bests the Columbia TriStar DVD release by miles with crisper images and richer detail than ever before. The film was shot with various scenes containing extremely low light levels, and as such, there is built-in crush that can’t be improved upon without unnaturally boosting the contrast, and even then, the difference would be minor. The black levels are inky deep and what detail in the shadows that is present is strong. Thick grain levels are even throughout with a beautiful color palette and excellent skin tones. Brightness and contrast levels are also excellent. It’s also a perfectly stable presentation with little to no film damage leftover and significantly more picture information along all sides of the frame. The audio is presented in a new English 5.1 DTS-HD presentation with optional subtitles in English SDH. Although it would have been preferable to have had the film’s original soundtrack as an option, one can’t fault this surround track, which was also overseen by Gilliam. At times it can be aggressive with excellent ambient activity, particularly during the hustle and bustle in the city, as well as the jousting tournament scenes (not to mention the Jabberwock monster itself). Dialogue is well-prioritized while score and sound effects have an ample amount of fidelity. There’s also some occasional LFE thrown in for good measure.
When it comes to the extras, nearly everything from the Columbia TriStar DVD has been carried over, plus several new items. Things begin with an audio commentary featuring Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin, which is always an entertaining listen as they basically watch the film and discuss and reminisce about it, throwing in a few jokes to keep things lively; Jabberwocky: Good Nonsense, which is a new 40-minute documentary on the making of the film featuring Gilliam, Palin, actress Annette Badland, and producer Sandy Lieberson discussing the film and its legacy; Valerie Charlton: The Making of a Monster, in which she shows us her home studio and discusses the creation of the Jabberwock creature; nearly 23 minutes of audio interview excerpts featuring cinematographer Terry Bedford from 1998 discussing his experiences shooting both Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Jabberwocky; the film’s original 3 1/2 minute U.K. opening sequence from a lower, full frame source, which was shorter than the U.S. release and didn’t feature the paintings or the opening narration; a full frame 7-minute video sketch-to-screen comparison; the film’s original theatrical trailer in HD; an on-camera reciting of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” poem by Michael Palin and Annette Badland; and a fold-out paper insert with the essay “Through the Looking Glass and What Terry Found There” by Scott Tobias, as well as restoration details. All that’s missing are the Japanese, Polish, and British posters that were included on the original DVD release.
While the film received a mixed response from critics who were expecting another Monty Python movie, Jabberwocky manages to hold up quite well under scrutiny. It certain has elements of a sketch comedy, but it’s clearly a Terry Gilliam film bursting at the seams. Underappreciated for decades, hopefully Criterion’s excellent and highly recommended Blu-ray release will be the key to its much-needed resurgence.
- Tim Salmons