Terry Gilliam’s first solo directorial effort, the whimsical medieval fantasy Jabberwocky, occupies a peculiar place in the lore of Monty Python, the legendary UK comedy troupe of which Gilliam is the sole American member. Two years prior to the release of Jabberwocky, the troupe issued the beloved comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which is also set in medieval times. Therefore, because Jabberwocky features a Python behind the camera as well as one in front of the camera—Michael Palin plays the leading role—comparisons between the two films are unavoidable. (A third Python, Terry Jones, plays a glorified cameo.) By any measure, Jabberwocky pales next to Holy Grail—which is slightly unfair, since the latter picture was never intended as a follow-up to Holy Grail. Quite to the contrary, Jabberwocky is a straight-ahead narrative, instead of a loose collection of sketches. It’s also a fairly grim examination of themes related to fate, heroism, and politics. Many of the gags in Jabberwocky have a tragicomic quality, since the story concerns an everyman who stumbles into greatness without ever actually being great. Gilliam, who cowrote this loose adaptation of a Lewis Carroll poem with Charles Alverson, must have known he was asking for trouble by making a project with so many similarities to Holy Grail—but then again, asking for trouble has been Gilliam’s modus operandi throughout his entire directorial career.
For all of these reasons, Jabberwocky is more noteworthy as a Python anomoly than as a proper film. The narrative is sluggish, since Gilliam seems more interested in production design than in dramaturgy. One is hard-pressed to think of a filthier movie about the Middle Ages—nearly every location is slathered with putrid-looking sludge, and the overuse of haze filters gives the cinematography a murky look. This grubby aesthetic is accentuated by the handmade nature of the film’s costumes and props, especially the title monster, a dragon that Palin’s character must slay. Seeing as how Gilliam put his image-making gifts to better use in subsequent work—beginning with his next film, the wonderful fantasy-adventure Time Bandits (1981)—it’s not as if the exercise of making Jabberwocky was a waste. For many people, however, the experience of watching the film may be a waste. Despite being a tremendously nimble comic actor, Palin is far too gentle a personality to command attention in the contact of an action story. Similarly, even though Gilliam is a genuine visionary, he falls into one style-over-substance trap after another. Some viewers may be able to groove on Jabberwocky’s irreverence, but many more will get tired of sifting through dull scenes and second-rate jokes while searching for moments of inspiration.