Dennis Cooper (Michael Palin) is in a rut. His father has passed, he is unmarried and fawns for the lady that lives in the swamp, and is now tasked with killing the villainous, titular Jabberwocky. All your usual medieval draws can be found within, their obvious ties to the comedy make them feel necessary rather than ill-included in Terry Gilliam’s first post-Python directing efforts. A monumental occasion it must be, to move out of the shadow of your peers and into the forefront, arguably the most successful and creatively gifted of all, presenting your knack for creative flair and oddities through an imagining of a Lewis Carroll poem. Jabberwocky screams for the Gilliam adaptation immediately, but that isn’t entirely a good premise to hold onto.
Gilliam’s direction does not shine through here, it is covered in muck and dirt and grime. Neither seedy nor effective, the tones and murky waters of his work on Jabberwocky are of little effect. He toys with the expected tropes of his craft, moments that would be highlighted and fruitfully harvested later in his career, but Jabberwocky highlights very early on that he is still finding his footing. There is nothing wrong with that, his first solo venture behind the camera would be an undoubtedly difficult one, one that does have pockets of the vision he would rely on later, but he cannot shake the Python influence so early on into his career.
Case in point, fellow Python alumni Palin, who gives a solid performance here. He moulds the character around his long, sucked-in face, the wild-eyed surprise lingers on his face at even the most mundane of times. It makes for a great disparage. Events that drive the story are played up by Palin’s presence, while other moments rely on his inability to rise to the heroic challenge. Mean and venomous the comedy may be, it comes through only so often, enough to leave a few light laughs, but never engaging enough with its script to offer anything more than brief chuckles and the odd moment of respite.
My usual sympathies for the hard work and craft of Gilliam as he faces off against producers who don’t understand his vision are nowhere to be found here. Jabberwocky is a solid piece of Palin-led entertainment, adding another layer of mockery to the medieval days, but Gilliam doesn’t present his unique voice behind the camera just yet. He is still transitioning from Monty Python to a man of original charm and charisma. The bridge would be crossed far better with Time Bandits, but Jabberwocky feels like the odd one out. Competent filmmaking, a decent variety of performers set to the backdrop of awful, muddy England. One piece is consistent though, the creature designs Gilliam has always drawn upon are just as good a visual here as they are in his other early outputs. It is a shame this consistency is not found elsewhere.