I'd only ever seen this once before and came away disappointed that it wasn't Python. On this revisit, its still not Python......but at least I can now see why that's both a good and bad thing.
Bad in that it somehow feels 'lacking' in the insanity of the absurd. Where Python was random, obtuse and belly achingly funny, this is more measured, taking the humour from the characters. 'Whimsical' is probably the best way I could describe this, rather than laugh out loud funny. But it works really well as a piece of whimsy - to say its not Python is...well, obtuse as it was never intended to be Python. There are obvious similarities between this and Grail, just due to the middle ages setting of both, but in terms of the tone of the film, it is never trying to be Python. And it is for the bulk of its runtime, whimsical and very amusing.
The good though is that it loses Python's obvious sketches structure and this feels like an actual film, traditional narrative and all. The characters are all nicely fleshed out accordingly and it also gives the opportunity to lose the usual Python acting cohort and bring in new faces. Well, new isn't the word - almost every single famous face from British TV is in here. And they all join in the fun - from Bernard Bresslaw, to Warren Mitchell, to Max Wall, to John Bird, to John Le Measurier, to......hell, Gordon Kaye, Rodney Bewes and Brian Glover even crop up in blink and you'll miss it cameos. But it feels like a proper narrative and the whimsy feels even more appropriate as a result.
I even loved the creature itself - kept offscreen until the very end, it looks wonderful. As do the numerous attacks and corpses it leaves behind - all of which would not disgrace a full on 80's slasher flick. Gilliam knows how to shoot a film and it shows, with him eeking every ounce out of the lovely production design giving us a film that looks like Barry Lyndon crossed with Grail. So I don't know where I heard it, but I recently heard someone say this was like Blackadder Series 1 compared to the Python films' Blackadder II - whilst its not a million miles away from that comparison, it is slightly unfair as this is a delightful film, far 'gentler' than Python, but still highly amusing, wonderfully put together and, well, its Gilliam innit? Therefore its fantastic.
I was surprised by two elements of the transfer - the first is the lack of original audio. The lossless 5.1 track on there may have been supervised by Gilliam and it may do most of the basics right, but it still has far too much of that obvious 'new' sound effect syndrome that plagues a number of new remixes. Its not too bad, but still.....from Criterion, I'm surprised there isn't the original audio on there as well. Secondly, its incredibly grainy. I don't mind grain at all and this looks really nicely 'chewy', but it still surprised me just how thick the grain was. Grain haters be warned!! It still looks really nice. Extras-wise I only watched the new 40-min doc, featuring loads of Palin and loads of Gilliam. Its a great watch, with loads of good BTS snippets on its genesis, production and legacy. There's a commentary on there and a chat with the SFX lady about the beastie amongst other things, but really the doc is all you need.
Summary - its not Python. And it would be wrong to do the film down for not being something it clearly isn't aiming to be. An amusing whimsy, much like the original Lewis Carroll poem, seems the best description, with it being wryly amusing pretty much from start to finish. The transfer has some things to note, but all in its another solid package from Criterion.