As Hollywood desperately tries to find more and more properties to turn into movies (Board games! Apps! Emojis!) it’s surprising they don’t buy the rights to more poems to turn into blockbusters. How about a rip-roaring “Ozymandias” about a team of adventurers trying to find the “two vast and trunkless legs of stone?” Or Russell Crowe as the “Ancient Mariner,” beset on stormy seas by a giant CGI albatross?
Terry Gilliam beat them all to the punch with his first film as a director, a very loose – indeed, pretty much entirely unraveled – adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” The 1977 film was just released this past week on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.
Riding high on the success of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (which he co-directed with Terry Jones), Gilliam was approached by Sandy Lieberson who, impressed with Gilliam’s stop-motion animation in that film, asked him to make an animated film.
Gilliam wanted to do live-action, and suggested adapting one of his favorite poems, “Jabberwocky.” Amid all the made-up words like “gyre” and “gimble,” there’s a pretty basic story there about a monster (the Jabberywocky) and the vorpal blade used by the hero to vanquish it.
Lieberson agreed, but the idea of Gilliam making a non-Python film rankled John Cleese, who forbade the other Pythons from being involved. They didn’t listen, mostly. Michael Palin stars as the hapless hero Dennis Cooper, son of a barrel-maker, who just wants a nice ordinary life with a local girl but instead gets conscripted into a quest to slay the beast and win the princess. Jones also makes a cameo in the opening scene as a poacher who is literally stripped to the bone by the frurious Jabberwocky.
“Jabberwocky” is best seen as a transition point for Gilliam as a filmmaker. He says he “didn’t want to be Pythonic” and make a film that was basically a series of sketches. Yet his grasp of long-form storytelling is shaky, and there are long stretches was not much seems to be happening. I think there’s more jousting scenes in this movie than in “A Knight’s Tale.”
But there are some good bits – Palin is perfection as the reluctant hero, clutching the half-eating potato he got from his eternal love like it was a rare talisman. And the film looks fantastic – Gilliam continues the grubby Middle Ages look of “Holy Grail,” with much dirt and blood everywhere. The general filthiness of the peasants makes for a good running gag; at one point we’re told that a peasant who gazed upon the Jabberwocky was so terrified that “his teeth turned snow white.”
The scenes are beautifully lit and framed , turning old sets from “Oliver!” into a convincingly eerie Middle Ages. The Jabberwocky, when it finally appears in the climax, looks like Big Bird from hell, and you can almost see it leap from Gilliam’s sketchbook onto the screen.
Gilliam would take what he learned from making “Jabberwocky” and apply it to stronger stories in “Time Bandits,” “Brazil” and “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.” It’s probably a bit too “mimsy” for the average viewer, but for fans of both Python and Gilliam it’s definitely worth a look.