Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Gilliam's monster, when we finally see it, is so hideous a thing that we can only be grateful this film is played for laughs."

Taking as its basis the classic fairy tale of the young man seeking his fortune who is destined to become a hero, Jabberwocky is also Terry Gilliam's attempt to seek his fortune independently of most of the Monty Python team, and it marks the start of what was to become a brilliant career. For Gilliam, always passionate about history, it provided an opportunity to use fantasy to explore a side of medieval life we rarely get to see. It also gave him the chance to let his vivid imagination step beyond the animation he was famous for and express itself in live action.

The young man at the centre of the story is Dennis, gamely played by Michael Palin, a wide-eyed innocent who rebels at the idea of being a cooper like his father and instead determines to go to the city and become an accountant. This way, he hopes, he can make enough money to impress Griselda, the girl of his dreams; he keeps the potato she once threw at him close to his heart.

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But the city is not what he expected. It's difficult enough even to get in, with frightened peasants clustering around its walls because, they say, there's a monster abroad. This situation eventually hits agricultural production so hard that it comes to the attention of Max Wall's King Bruno the Questionable, and he announces a jousting contest the winner of which will be sent out to slay the beast and, if successful, win half his kingdom. Though Dennis' ambitions are not so lofty, he finds himself caught up by destiny.

Gilliam's monster, when we finally see it, is so hideous a thing that we can only be grateful this film is played for laughs. It still offers some genuine chills, together with a jarring sense of otherness that has become a feature of his work, a perfect complement to Lewis Carrol's surreal poetry. Hiding behind the comedy mask is the bleak face of poverty - desperation, plague and violence haunt the lives of the peasants and city-dwellers alike - real monsters still a part of life today in many places. It is through a constant awareness of this real horror and the precarious political line surrounding it that Gilliam is able to make his film so cruelly funny.

Jabberwocky is a work still at the experimental stage and, like its monster, it only just hangs together. There are some problems with pacing and not all the jokes work, but it's easy to feel for Palin's hapless hero, and, ugly as it is, the world we encounter within it is visually stunning. A must for all Gilliam fans.

Reviewed on: 17 Mar 2009
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Jabberwocky packshot
Anxious to make his fortune and win the hand of his beloved Griselda, a cooper's son agrees to support a knight on his quest to slay a monster.
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Director: Terry Gilliam

Writer: Charles Alverson and Terry Gilliam, based on the poem by Lewis Carroll.

Starring: Michael Palin, Harry H. Corbett, John Le Mesurier, Warren Mitchell, Max Wall, Rodney Bewes, John Bird, Bernard Bresslaw, Antony Carrick, Peter Cellier

Year: 1977

Runtime: 105 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK


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