Few directors in Hollywood are given complete freedom to make whatever they want. The obvious choices usually come to mind when you think of such directors. Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Martin Scorsese. Terry Gilliam is another, but he stands apart from his fortunate colleagues in that his movies never make money and somehow he still manages to make his movies completely on his own terms and without any compromise. I was first introduced to Gilliam’s fantastically insane world as a kid when I saw Time Bandits (NOTE: If you have not seen this movie, then you’re doing yourself a big disservice and if you have kids, then you’re doing them a disservice by not showing them this movie). Since then, I have more or less followed Gilliam’s career and even if I haven’t liked a particular movie, I can never say I’ve been bored or disinterested by any of his films. Gilliam is as unique of a director as they come and among the few who cannot ever be replaced. Jabberwocky was Gilliam’s 2nd major directorial effort following the classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Jabberwocky was similar to Holy Grail in the sense that it too was set during medieval times (a favorite time period of Gilliam’s) and it contained the same sort of British dry wit that characterized Holy Grail. However, unlike Holy Grail, Jabberwocky did not attain the same level of success and despite its interesting storyline and characters, it couldn’t quite gel together into a workable film.

Jabberwocky follows a sort of dimwit of a young man (Michael Palin) who is the son of a ‘cooper’ (a maker of barrels). He lives in a village with his father and he dreams of someday making something of himself and that something, according to him, is teaching people how to do things more efficiently (even though he has no clue how to really do this). In the meantime, there is a horrible monster, the Jabberwocky, that is ravaging the nearby towns and killing anyone who dares venture into the forest where the creature lives. Back in the peaceful village, our young man’s father dies one day and the young man decides to head out into the world and find his true calling. He ends up at a castle-city thats being terrorized by the Jabberwocky. The city is ruled by a inept king with a princess daughter who lives at the top of her tower waiting for her prince to come rescue her. Our young man finds himself in a series of mishaps and mistaken identities that eventually leads him to battle the Jabberwocky.

Terry Gilliam’s vision of the Middle Ages is a dark, cluttered, dirty mess thats populated by nearly-insane and/or dimwitted and irrational people. In watching his films, I always wonder how close Gilliam’s portrayal of the period comes to how it really was. I’d like to think it was quite close. In his world, everyone has bad teeth, they’re starving, are generally unkempt looking, and you never really see any paved roads or anything that looks clean or polished for that matter. I don’t think there is a square inch of screen in Gilliam’s movies that is not occupied by a person or object and for anyone into interior design or production design, any Gilliam movie is an inspirational feast for the eyes. In Jabberwocky, you can tell Gilliam was working with a pretty small budget, but he’s able to stretch his dollar (or pound was it) pretty far with the look he’s able to achieve.

The plot of Jabberwocky is very Chaucer-like where you have the ordinary man who goes through life through a series of events that are out of his control. Palin’s character attempts to control his destiny, but he soon finds that destiny controls him and he has absolutely no say as to what the outcome of his life will be. Although there are a number of truly enjoyable moments (i.e. Palin’s clumsiness resulting in the chaotic destruction of a blacksmith’s shop and Palin’s encounter with the King’s daughter), most scenes in the movie are not funny and come away feeling a bit boring when compared to previous Monty Python films (even though this is not a Monty Python movie, it can be argued that it is in the same spirit of it). I don’t mind plots that are structured as a series of episodic events, but generally I prefer a story that flows better and feels like a single story being told.

As for Michael Palin, he is a remarkably talented comic actor, but unfortunately he’s not used to his fullest extent in this film despite the fact that he stars in it. Palin has few lines overall and I was hoping to have heard him speak more dialogue. The surrounding characters seem to get more attention in the film than Palin does and the film suffers for it. However, you get to see Palin’s trademark bumbling stutter, which he honed to perfection years later in A Fish Called Wanda.

Overall, Jabberwocky doesn’t live up to the Monty Python standard. Its a slow paced bore at times that picks up in moments here and there. The production design is great as you get to probably see the most grimiest, dirtiest depiction of the Middle Ages. Michael Palin does a fine job, but if you really want to see Palin and Terry Gilliam at their best, check out their other films (A Fish Called Wanda, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys – NOTE: Palin and Gilliam did not, with the exception of Holy Grail, collaborate on these movies).

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