Jabberwocky (1977)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Michael Palin, John Cleese,
Extras: Commentary Track, Sketches, Poster Art, Trailer

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!"

Director Terry Gilliam began work on "Jabberwocky" very soon after the completion of the classic "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." As both films are set in medieval times and feature cast members from the Monty Python troupe, comparisons between the two are inevitable. But "Jabberwocky" is really not a Python film at all and stands instead as Terry Gilliam’s first wholly original directorial effort.

Loosely based on the crazed poem by Lewis Carroll, the film revolves around the misadventures of Dennis the Apprentice (Michael Palin), who sets off for the big city to find fame and fortune and win the hand of his beloved, the mean and foul Griselda Fishfinger. But the land is beset by a terrible monster called the Jabberwock and before he knows it young Dennis finds himself mistaken for a princely knight and face to face with the foul beast in a duel to the death.

"Jabberwocky" is a difficult film to classify. It is most certainly a comedy but folks expecting the laugh-out-loud hilarity of a Monty Python movie may come away disappointed. The laughs here come about because the people who populate this medieval world are just like the folks we know today and the situations they find themselves in are immediately recognizable.

"Jabberwocky" is actually much more of a traditional comedy than "Holy Grail." The characters and environment are fully fleshed out and the story is told in a straightforward — if not a little crazed — way. And, as was the case with "Holy Grail," the gritty, nasty medieval world depicted on screen is probably as close to the harsh reality of that age as has been seen on the silver screen.

"Jabberwocky" is presented in both <$PS,pan & scan> and 1.85:1 <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> versions. While it’s nice to see the film in <$PS,widescreen>, the overall image quality is quite poor. Colors are washed out, the picture is soft, and black levels are very weak. On top of that, there is excessive film grain from beginning to end as well as a fair amount of physical damage to the film elements. In addition, heavy edge enhancement and ringing are obvious as are a number of compression artifacts. The occasional odd scene actually appears quite good but most of the film is a real mess. The <$PS,pan & scan> transfer on the flip side of the disc is even worse with all of these problems magnified. The video is certainly watchable but we’ve come to expect much better work from Columbia TriStar.

Audio is presented in English <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 and 2.0 Surround mixes. The packaging indicates that a French soundtrack is available but it’s nowhere to be found. Both of the included audio mixes suffer from a lack of dynamic range which imparts a very flat and artificially limited sound. In addition, the 5.1 track is of the sort that drives fans of original sound mixes nuts as the added surround effects are very heavy-handed and seem out of place. Fortunately, dialogue is usually understandable and firmly anchored to the center speaker in both mixes. I can’t imagine that "Jabberwocky" was presented theatrically in anything other than mono sound and these attempts to beef it up for the DVD really fall flat. Forced to choose, I would recommend the DD 2.0 Surround mix as the lesser of two evils.

As an added bonus, "Jabberwocky" includes a few nice extras. First up is a running commentary with director Terry Gilliam and star Michael Palin. As one would expect from a pair of ex-Monty Python cast members, the track is quite engaging and funny. Surprisingly, it is also very detailed and both men have a lot of great memories from the making of "Jabberwocky."

Next up is what’s billed as a sketch-to-screen comparison. This 7-minute featurette compares a handful of Gilliam’s original conceptual sketches with the finished film product. What comes across from this feature is just how true to the director’s vision the film remained.

Also included are English, Japanese, and Polish poster artwork as well as the film’s original theatrical trailer.

"Jabberwocky" is a wonderful comedy and as the first film directed solo by Terry Gilliam it exhibits many of the hallmarks that have made his cinematic forays so enjoyable. His interpretation of a fantasy world that overlays a very recognizable reality makes for an odd juxtaposition. Characters and situations all seem familiar but the jarring environment never allows the viewer to become too comfortable with the on-screen action. You may think you know what’s coming next but you can never really be certain.

Unfortunately for fans of the film, Columbia TriStar has dropped the ball on this DVD release and the combination of a very poor video transfer coupled with an overly fake-sounding audio remix makes it difficult to give this disc a blanket endorsement. But the included <$commentary,commentary track> is very good and seeing this film in <$PS,widescreen> for the first time is rewarding enough that I feel safe in recommending the DVD to fans of Terry Gilliam and Monty Python. While I’m sure some will come away from this film scratching their noggins, it is heartening to see "Jabberwocky" getting some much-deserved exposure and I’m confidant that even this subpar DVD will win the film many new fans.