New from The Criterion Collection is a director-approved special edition of Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky. Based on the poem ‘Jabberwocky’ by Lewis Carroll, the film takes us on a satirical adventure with medieval every-man Dennis Cooper, played by Michael Palin. Cooper is mistaken for a knight and finds himself defending the kingdom of Bruno the Questionable against a dragon – the Jabberwock – bent on destroying whatever lay in its path.
The Criterion Collection releases important classic and contemporary films in editions offering high quality and supplemental materials that add depth to the viewing experience. This new rendering of the 1977 film is a 4K digital transfer from a restoration by the BFI National Archive and The Film Foundation, approved by director Terry Gilliam. Gilliam also oversaw creation of a 5.1 surround-sound mix using DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray.
Lewis Carroll was known for charming, nonsensical poems and stories, which perfectly fits Monty Python alums Gilliam and Palin. I wondered how they would stretch a one-page poem into a full-length film. Surprisingly, three parts of the poem are recited during the film and give it its structure.
The structure is a classic hero’s journey. Cooper, son of a barrel maker (a cooper), is naive and good-hearted. As he sets off into the world, he is put upon by family difficulties, personal affronts, and societal problems, ultimately coming face to face with the Jabberwock. The film ends with a classic fairytale finish, but, with an unexpected twist. It also has rom-com elements.
Philosophically, the film takes on “the establishment”, which gives it something of a contemporary feel. Although, perhaps, people have been taking on the establishment ever since they have existed. The preening, plotting, dreaming and backstabbing suggest that people have not changed so much since the dark ages.
The humor interspersed in the story is not the totally outlandish Python style, but is subtler and exists at least subtextually in almost every scene. Okay, the hero getting peed upon and the bit when he steps in a giant Jabberwock turd is not that subtle, but, it is pure Gilliam and Palin.
The special features on the disc should delight fans and charm those who are new to the work.
Gilliam and Palin provide commentary, recorded in 2001 and you can see a selection of Gilliam’s storyboards and sketches juxtaposed with the related parts of the film. These are from the original 1977 video and make you appreciate the restoration and 4K upgrade.
Other features include a documentary on the making of the film, featuring Gilliam, producer Sandy Lieberson, Palin, and actor Annette Badland; an interview with Valerie Charlton, designer of the Jabberwock, featuring her collection of rare behind-the-scenes photographs; a 1998 audio interview with cinematographer Terry Bedford; the original opening to the film; the trailer; and a delightful reading of Carroll’s entire poem by Palin and Badland.
In the making-of feature, we discover that Gilliam’s last real (i.e., non-film) job found him working on the assembly line of a Chevrolet plant in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley. He reveals that his experience there inspired one of the crazy scenes in the film, involving things going wrong in an armor smith’s foundry.
The interview with designer Charlton yields insights into what it’s like to work on complicated films. Also, when I saw the Jabberwock for the first time in the film, I thought it looked like the unnatural spawn of Hellboy and Big Bird. In the Charlton segment, I found out she later designed characters for Jim Henson.
Fans of Gilliam, Palin, and outlandish humor, will want to add this disc to their collection. Filmmakers will take away lessons from the supplemental material. Just about anyone should enjoy this romp, and then, like Lewis Carroll, they’ll find themselves yelling “O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” Or, something like that.