RetroReviews #49: Jabberwocky (1977)

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JULY 7, 2013 SCREENING: JABBERWOCKY (1977)

July 7-12 was “Terry Gilliam” week for me, and I screened all the movies directed by Terry Gilliam that I hadn’t previous seen. Jabberwocky was the first solo film by Terry Gilliam, the only American-born member of the famous British Monty Python troupe. Gilliam seemingly did the impossible and made a narrative film out of the surreal Lewis Carroll poem “Jabberwocky”. Gilliam is one my favorite directors, and Carroll is one of my favorite authors, so its unfortunate that I believe Jabberwocky is probably Gilliam’s worst film.

I didn’t enjoy having to sit through Jabberwocky, but that’s not to stay the film is completely terrible. Aside from turning a “nonsense” poem into a literal story, it has several other things going for it as well: although its a comedy, it stays faithful to the source material and uses lines from the poem verbatim What’s more, the on screen visuals make sense and show the action in a way that the viewer can follow the narration. Overall, the narration is quite wonderful to listen to. This is also the most “Pythonesque” of Gilliam’s films, which is not surprising since it was done shortly after Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The setup and gags are very reminiscent of the earlier film. Finally, the appearance of the Jabberwocky creature itself was very impressive, and was faithful to John Tennial’s original illustration, and very impressive for a low budget 1977 film. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked great within the context of the film,

So why didn’t I like Jabberwocky? I felt the rest of the elements of this movie were just plain lousy. None of the slapstick gags worked for me – Gilliam may have been emulating his earlier Python humor but when he did it a solo project the film time, it simply fell flat. Variety wrote a negative review of this movie claiming it was “long on jabber but short on yocks, and I have to agree. Jabberwocky is very talkative trying to stretch out a short poem into a feature length movie, and all the characters babble on endlessly, with completely uninteresting and irrelevant conversations. The film is dark and dreary (which again, worked in Holy Grail but doesn’t work here because of the pacing), the music is bland and forgettable, and all the battle and action scenes seem to be unfocused and shabbily shot).

I don’t blame Gilliam, since he had the other five Pythoneers contributing material on his earlier movies, and here he only has Michael Palin, who stars in the film but apparently didn’t contribute anything more than acting. Gilliam’s movies are always “out there” and his material isn’t for everyone, but his incoherent weird movies became more polished and sharper later on. The ultimate test for an adaptation like Jabberwocky is would a huge Lewis Carroll fan like myself want to add this movie to my collection, or even watch it again? The answer is no, and worse, that answer is not because the film wasn’t faithful to the source material or only used the title to cash in on Carroll’s name. The film is actually very faithful despite being a tongue-in-cheek satire. In this case, merely being faithful isn’t enough. You could film a twelve hour audio reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses, narrated by Jerry Seinfeld, and I wouldn’t want to sit through that, either.

Jabberwocky had good intentions, and it has a lot of good things going for it. But overall, Terry Gilliam’s first movie simply sucks. Sorry, Terry. On the plus side, he got much better.

* ½ out of ****

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