Amid the filth and muck of England in the Dark Ages, a fearsome dragon stalks the land, casting a shadow of terror upon the kingdom of Bruno the Questionable. Who should emerge as the town’s only possible savior but Dennis Cooper (Michael Palin), an endearingly witless bumpkin who stumbles onto the scene and is flung into the role of brave knight? Terry Gilliam’s first outing as a solo director—inspired by Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” and made on the heels of Gilliam’s success as a member of the iconic comedy troupe Monty Python—showcases his delight in comic nonsense, with a cast chock-full of beloved British character actors. A giddy romp through blood and excrement, this fantasy remains one of the filmmaker’s most uproarious visions of society run amok.
The Criterion Collection presents Terry Gilliam’s first solo directorial venture Jabberwocky on Blu-ray, using BFI’s new 4K restoration. The 1080p/24hz high-definition encode presents the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this dual-layer disc. The restoration comes from a scan of the 35mm original negative and other sources where needed. Criterion is making use of Terry Gilliam’s preferred cut of the film, which is the uncut UK version with the alternate American opening featuring voice-over narration.
The film has always looked ugly—by design—so it is admittedly a bit hard to get a grasp as to how the image should look. The image here can look dirty and washed out, skin tones looking pasty. There are scenes that maybe lean a bit too heavy on the yellow side of things (not counting some scenes that are supposed to look candlelit) and then some darker ones that lean heavily on blue, but even then this isn’t too far removed from Sony/Columbia’s previous releases of the film on DVD and VHS, which were certainly not all that colourful or deeply saturated themselves. Black levels, though, are really deep and inky, and the darker sequences look pretty good because of this. Shadow detail can be limited or non-existent but I think most of this is more related to the original photography since most of these scenes have very limited light sources. On the whole, though, detail is very impressive throughout, every bit of dirt and grime sharply rendered, and the intricate details of the costumes and sets have never looked as clear as they do here. I was also pleased to see more details on the actual jabberwocky itself at the end. This climax also presents a lot of smoke and the smoke looks great, no banding or artifacts present.
The restoration work has been very thorough itself, improving significantly over Sony’s previous DVD, which was littered with damage and marks: that is all now gone. Grain is present, looking fine most of the time, but you can tell when another source outside of the negative had to be used when the grain becomes a bit heavier and more noticeable. At the very least, though, it always looks natural and never looks like noise. In all it’s a filmic image and this is the best this filthy looking film has more than likely ever looked.
Criterion only includes the 5.1 surround remix, presented in DTS-HD MA, and not the original mono track. It’s not a bad mix in regards to its surround use, and it manages to be quite immersive in throwing you into the soiled environment of the film. The knight jousts, the village crowds, the armory, and the various brawls that occur, all deliver a great amount of activity featuring sound effects that move and pan between the channels clearly and naturally. This aspect sounds great.
Unfortunately dialogue can be hard to hear, either drowned out by other effects or coming off muffled. This is usually an issue with Gilliam’s films (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas probably the worst offender) so I don’t think it comes down to the transfer or restoration itself, and it was an issue on previous home video incarnations. You can make due but it might be tempting to turn on the optional subtitles at times.
Criterion provides a decent special edition for the film, adding new material and carrying material over from the previous Sony DVD edition. First thing carried over is the 2001 audio commentary featuring Gilliam and star Michael Palin, who state this is the first time they’ve seen each other in a long while. Python tracks and solo Gilliam tracks are usually always entertaining, and this one, which I guess lies somewhere in between, is as well. It’s a surprisingly energetic and engaging conversation, the two talking straight through, recalling the difficult production, the various (and numerous) problems that came up, while also sharing some of the humourous short-cuts and budget saving techniques they tried to use (apparently when Blake Edwards found out Gilliam was trying to use his castle sets for The Pink Panther Strikes Again Edwards had them burned). The two also compare the production to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Gilliam admitting that that one was probably easier since it didn’t call for realism: if they couldn’t do something because of budget limitations or because it was too hard they could just make a joke about it, like the coconuts in place of horses, but they couldn’t get away with the same thing on Jabberwocky. Monty Python also proved to be a bit of a thorn in the side of the film as people went to it expecting a Python film (since Gilliam, Palin, and even Terry Jones were involved) and not getting anything like that. There is all sorts of material throughout, the two giving as much detail and information on the film that one could want. It is all incredibly funny and the energy of the track is great making it a must for fans (if they haven’t listened to it yet of course).
Exclusive to this edition is a new making-of documentary entitled ”Jabberwocky”: Good Nonsense, running 41-minutes and featuring Gilliam, actors Michael Palin and Annette Badland, and producer Sandy Lieberson. Shockingly the commentary actually doesn’t get all that much into how the film came about (Gilliam does touch on this at the closing of the track but Palin talks over him through most of it) and we get more backstory here, Gilliam explaining how he had actually been working on something else for Lieberson (an animated film apparently) when the producer noticed Gilliam wasn’t fully invested in it asking him what he wanted to do. The answer was Jabberwocky. From there the participants then talk about many aspects of the production and there is a bit of repetition of subjects that appear in the commentary, but some topics get expanded upon here. Badland for one gets to talk about her character and the levels she went to for the character, Lieberson apparently concerned it might be too much, and there’s more about the photography and the film’s look. It’s another enjoyable feature and it’s fun seeing everyone here again (even if they are recorded separately). Even if you listen to the commentary it’s still worth viewing.
The Making of a Monster next features a new 15-minute interview with production designer Valerie Charlton, who was ultimately the one responsible for the jabberwocky in the film. The backstory behind this is really quite fascinating as she was brought in initially by Gilliam but pushed out by others. Charlton would then have to come back and save the day, though, and she explains the rather intricate design of the giant puppet and how they got the scale they wanted. With the bonus of seeing her studio and some of her other artwork (including busts of Palin and Gilliam that are both wonderful and yet creepy at the same time) it’s a really great addition to the release.
Criterion next digs up audio excerpts of an interview from 1998 between writer David Morgan and cinematographer Terry Bedford. In the excerpt the two talk about his work on both Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Jabberwocky, though the focus is, somewhat surprisingly, more on Holy Grail. Bedford talks about how both Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam worked together on the film, and how Gilliam did work (and act) differently on his solo effort a couple of years later (which led to a falling out between Gilliam and Bedford), and then the look that was created for each. He also explains the industry at the time, where both of those films, and even Star Wars, really had trouble getting made. Though the details were slight on Jabberwocky itself I still found this a beneficial discussion about Gilliam’s growth as a director.
Criterion then carries over two more supplements from the DVD, the first being the films original opening used for the original UK edit. The opening with Terry Jones is still the same as far as I can see though lacks the voice-over narration, jumping right back into the film after the title. There is then a 7-minute sketch-to-screen comparison that shows off the various designs and sketches made for the film and then showing the corresponding sequences in the film. Both look to be lifted directly from the DVD, presented in 1.33:1.
The disc then closes with the original theatrical trailer and then a minute-and-half video featuring actors Michael Palin and Annette Badland reading Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” The poem is also written out in the liner of the cover art. Scott Tobias then provides an excellent essay on the film, looking at its satire, how it plays with fairy tale tropes, and how it leads into Gilliam’s later films. It’s a nice close to the features.
It’s not an overly stacked edition, and considering the film’s cult following I guess I would have expected a bit more, but the supplements are breezy and fun, filled with great details about its production. The features should still make fans happy.
Again Jabberwocky is not the prettiest film, but this restoration does deliver every bit of filth and animal dung in great detail, and the final presentation looks very much like a film. It also features a nice collection of entertaining features that should please fans. It comes highly recommended.