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Assumptions will be upended.
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The familiar will turn peculiar and uncanny. For a director who would come to be known for taking on seemingly impossible projects, adapting a poem composed of made-up gibberish seems like an appropriately perverse way to start a solo career.
The only fidelity Gilliam needed to show to Carroll in Jabberwocky was to produce a fearsome, birdlike creature that would eventually die by the sword, and he dutifully obliged, though neither the creature nor the killing conform to storybook expectations.
First, though, Gilliam had to get some distance from the sketch-comedy troupe Monty Python—a task that was both essential and impossible, since his identity and sensibility could never be entirely untangled from it. Before striking out on his own with Jabberwocky, Gilliam codirected with Terry Jones Monty Python and the Holy Grail , a fractured lark on Arthurian myth that would become perhaps the most quotable comedy ever filmed—at least for a certain species of nerd-kind.
Red Queen (Through the Looking-Glass) - Wikipedia
Jabberwocky revisits the medieval period with a similarly jaundiced view of its royalty and men in armor, and the adventures that transport its heroes from one kingdom to the next, vorpal blades flashing. With Michael Palin in the lead role and other Python alums like Jones and Neil Innes making appearances—to say nothing of Gilliam himself, who turns up as a deranged man hawking rocks as diamonds—the film could be superficially mistaken as a companion piece to Holy Grail, but the comparison melts away under closer scrutiny.
Gone are the anachronisms, the blackout sketches, the frequent breaking of the fourth wall. This is a far grimier vision of history, with many of the jokes playing bleakly off the day-to-day hardships of the time and the pathetic ironies embedded in its story. There is, however, one bit of dialogue in Holy Grail that could double as the thesis statement of Jabberwocky: Must be a king.
The situation on the ground is humbler still for Dennis, whom Palin plays as the most put-upon of his formidable gallery of put-upon heroes. But he also carries on a casual conversation with her father as Mr.
Fishfinger hangs his behind out the window and we hear telltale plops in the waterway below.
This is not another show of contempt by a Fishfinger. This is just the milieu. Even the monster itself seems like an ugly manifestation of the times.
Fantasies are supposed to end with knights in glistening armor fighting majestic, fire-breathing dragons, but the Jabberwock is a spindly, desiccated menace. Two years after Jaws ushered in the modern blockbuster, Gilliam applied a similar strategy to his creature: Within the chaos of Jabberwocky, poor Dennis provides little relief. He lacks the pride and self-respect to imagine a bride more suitable than Griselda, to whom he attaches himself like a barnacle to a barge.
For him, the fairy-tale ending is like a prison sentence. Throughout the film, he hangs on to a potato Griselda discarded, as a token of her affection, clinging to it even as it takes on unexpected value as currency or sustenance in a city that has gone without food for days.
Gilliam examines other fairy-tale tropes from behind the looking glass, too, as with the addled conscience of his princess locked in a tower—pure of heart and spirit, perhaps, but empty-headed and naive in the expectation that her fate will conform to legend. This impostor prince and dull-witted princess may well get married, but the happily-ever-after ending will surely elude them. The magical-realist twist of Jabberwocky is simple: Gilliam steps through the mirror and a familiar room is transformed into a foreign and disturbing place, where everything happens as prophecy dictates but has the opposite of the presumed effect.
Though Gilliam would go on to treat the past with the same irreverence and lowbrow wit in Time Bandits , The Adventures of Baron Munchausen , and The Brothers Grimm , never again would the darkness prevail so handily. Few can expect to die so spectacularly. Scott Tobias is a freelance film and television writer from Chicago.