A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.


March 5, 2011


This is an odd artifact. When I think of the oeuvre of Terry Gilliam, which stretches from the Holy Grail to Dr. Parnassus, I tend to gloss over this movie. It has a lot of clearly Gilliamesque strangeness, and it’s fun to see what he does with almost zero budget. At the same time it has such a strange, almost experimental feel. It’s a clear stepping stone on the path to Gilliam’s distinctive style but it’s not quite there yet. It has all the madcap humor and irreverence of his Monty Python animations and it’s a clear attempt to find his feet in the world of live action film making – his first feature film if you don’t count Monty Python and the Holy Grail (which is more like a series of connected sketches.) Sadly it lacks the sense of awe and wonder that is more a part of his later films. It has all the zaniness and none of the magic.

Michael Palin stars as the hapless Dennis Cooper, a young cooper’s apprentice who sets out to find his fortune after his father dies. In the farcical medieval world of this movie the entire kingdom Dennis lives in is terrorised by a fearsome beast. With jaws that bite and claws that snatch. The manxome Jabberwocky has slain entire villages and driven all the peasant population to cower in and around the capital gates. A privileged few merchants and their guilds in the city have become rich off of the terror and confusion, but the general dirty masses want the beast done away with. So King Bruno the Questionable holds a tournament to find a champion. This champion will be tasked with killing the Jabberwocky and rewarded with half the kingdom and the hand of the king’s daughter in marriage.

Through the course of his misadventures Dennis battles starvation, petty guards, a jealous innkeeper, bandits, the Black Knight and ultimately the Jabberwocky itself. All unintentionally and with only a rotten potato and his memory of his beloved Griselda to sustain him. It’s a simple twisted fairy tale plot and in other hands it would probably have been mildly entertaining just for that. But just knowing the plot communicates nothing about the chaos that is this movie.

The entire tone of this movie screams ‘Gilliam.’ There’s the aesthetic of the shabby, collapsing, filthy kingdom for example. King Bruno’s castle is literally falling apart, filled with dust and falling plaster. The slightly heavy use of embarrassing bodily functions for humor also seems to have been Gilliam’s taste early on in his career. Throughout the film you catch hints of the Holy Grail and Time Bandits. In many ways I think of this as a student film. It’s his equivalent of THX 1138 or Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop. It’s an important part of the director’s work, but it’s a little rough around the edges.

One thing I do love about this movie, though, is the final confrontation with the beast itself. The Jabberwocky is a fantastic costume/puppet which, considering the minimal budget of the film, is pretty impressive. I mean, yes, it’s rubbery and can hardly move, but it’s also menacing and ferocious. Which is an accomplishment when you’re dealing with a complex rubber suit. It’s not my favorite representation of the Jabberwocky from Lewis Carroll’s poem (that would be the Muppet version.) But it does deliver pretty well after all the POV shots used to show its viewpoint as it murders townsfolk. (Interestingly both of the people we actually witness killed by the beast are Python alums. First Terry Jones and than Gilliam himself.) The first time I saw this movie I wondered right up until the very end if we were going to see the creature at all, so maybe my fondness for it is because I had been afraid that budgetary restraints would preclude the monster itself from actually existing. It’s like the final reveal of the laughably inarticulate and rubbery shark in Jaws. If Jaws had been a farcical comedy and not a serious horror/adventure film.

I enjoy having this as part of my collection, although I’m not likely to watch it very frequently. It’s a part of Gilliam history and something any Gilliam fan should own. Just don’t call it a Monty Python film.


March 5, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , ,

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