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A very famous poem written by Lewis Carrol as part of his fanciful work, ‘Through the Looking-Glass’ brought the world one of the strangest creatures in functional cryptozoology.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!"

With these surreal words, Mr. Carrol crafted a bizarre ecology where creatures like the Jabberwock can exist alongside Jubjub birds. There have been numerous treatments of both ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’ demonstrating the enduring audience appeal contained in the unique linguists emanating from the wonderfully playful mind of this influential author. It was inevitable that some filmmaker would single out this creature for special treatment. Considering the rather unusual themes and lexicon infusing the source material any auteur considering undertaking the project would have to be in possession considerable talent and ability to express through the most unorthodox means possible. This requirement for something completely different would best be achieved by members of a small cadre of people collectively known to the world as Monty Python. The film was co-written and directed by Terry Gilliam. It stars Michael, Palin, founding members of the preeminent British comedy troupe built their enduring reputation by not only taking their brand of humor out of the box but far beyond the room containing the box. Previously Mr. Gilliam co-directed ‘Monty Python, and the Holy Grail’ along with another member of the troupe, Terry Gilliam but this movie would mark the beginning of a solo career in the birth of a noteworthy solo career creating some of the most brilliantly well-constructed and surreally spectacular films ever made.

Considering this story is set back in a time when your surname reflected a defining aspect of a person, Dennis Cooper (Michael Palin), was an apprentice cooper, a maker of barrels and similar items. It wasn’t having if Dennis had much of an opportunity to engage in a vocation contrary to his family name, his father (Paul Curran), was the town’s current cooper and his craft master. The field hasn’t the most lucrative, to begin with, and apprentices earned barely enough for tattered clothing and some other basics. It certainly didn’t do much to maker the younger cooper and attractive prospect for marriage, but Dennis yearned for the hand of Griselda Fishfinger (Annette Badland). On his deathbed, Dennis’ father belittles his son one last time. Determined to be worthy of the maiden by finding suitable work. As he leaves, Griselda tosses a potato at him which he saves as a cherished keepsake. When Dennis arrives in the town, his quest for gainful employment was sidetracked with the citizens gripped in abject fear. A horrible monster is terrorizing the community. To choose a champion to slay the beast the king, Bruno the Questionable (Max Wall) decrees a jousting tournament. The winner will have the dubious honor of facing the monster. Should he prevail, the brave knight will be rewarded win land and elevated to the noble rank of Prince. In acknowledgment of his new status, the royal princess (Deborah Fallender) will be released from the tower guarding her maidenhood, to be his bride. At this point, the audience is certain that the story is taking a strange twist on the familiar fairy tale tropes. The next scene demonstrates that reality will shortly completely take its leave. Dennis is summarily turned down for work informed that even the best cooper is not needed.

Dazed by the loss of hope Dennis stumbles around until he inadvertently enters the tower, Looking up he sees the princess standing in front of him completely naked. Desperate to be freed from her imprisonment she jumps to the conclusion that she rationalizes that Dennis is her long-awaited prince. She rationalized that his decidedly un-noble attire was to demonstrate his humility. She decides he must keep his royal identity a secret and disguises him in the habit of a nun. The townsfolk are convinced they are being deceived. He is either Satan disguised as a nun or perhaps a nun hiding the fact that she is Satan. Either scenario is not conducive to Dennis’ health and happiness. The people demand that he must be sent as a sacrifice to the monster. All Dennis wanted was to find gainful employment and marry the love of his life, not become dinner for a monster. Mistaken identity is a perennially favorite plot contrivance not restricted to comedy. The fashion that Mr. Gilliam deploys the technique is akin to Russian Nesting Dolls with Dennis’ identity first mistaken by the princess and subsequently by the frighten common folk.

Most of the side projects performed by the Monty Python team are entirely surreal, insane and hysterical albeit deemed by some on a puerile level. The other side of that coin is their comedy is a means to make a pointed socio-political comment. For American audiences, some of this satiric content is lost due to numerous differences in cultural nuances and references. While this observation applies to this film, it is mitigated by universal nature of the targeted social foibles. Among the most obvious is the comment on the decaying and ineffectual nature of hidebound traditions in government. The king and his advisor are both set in their ways. It is crucial to keep in mind that in the late seventies the social changes imaged in the sixties were beginning to take effect. The princess is dehumanized, unjustly imprisoned alone in a tower to protect her virginity. Her purity was auctioned off by her father as a reward for services performed for the crown. Juxtaposed to this is the dehumanization of Dennis. His own father’s dying breath condemned him. His training was useless in any practical sense and when in a new location he has judged his clothing or the wishful of a psychologically abused young woman.

bulletNew 4K digital restoration by the BFI National Archive and The Film Foundation, approved by director Terry Gilliam, with 5.1 surround soundtrack mix supervised by Gilliam
bulletAudio commentary from 2001 featuring Gilliam and actor Michael Palin
bulletNew documentary on the making of the film, featuring Gilliam, Palin, producer Sandy Lieberson, and actor Annette Badland
bulletNew interview with Valerie Charlton, designer of the film’s creature, the Jabberwock, featuring her collection of rare behind-the-scenes photographs
bulletAudio interview with cinematographer Terry Bedford from 1998
bulletSelection of Gilliam’s storyboards and sketches • Original UK opening sequence
bulletPLUS: An essay by critic Scott Tobias
bulletFor fans of Monty Python and specifically the films of Terry Gilliam, it is interesting to revisit this early work of this talented filmmaker. Later works tended to become overly elaborate, weighing down the humor in insanity. This is not a derogatory statement about his work or talent. ’12 Monkeys’ and ‘Brazil’ are both brilliant and insightful but they are not able to express their themes as simple as he managed here. Its induction has recognized the enduring qualities inherent in this movie and its place in the oeuvre of the artist into the Blu-ray release by the Criterion Collection. As usual, the technical specifications remain true to the filmmaker’s original theatrical release and are combined with sufficient cinematically vital added material.

Posted        12/23/2017

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