By Ty Burr
July 26, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

If anyone can appreciate the great bad taste of recycling old goods and calling it new media, it’s the five surviving members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Leave it to other CD-ROM producers to handle the legacy of, say, Clint Eastwood or the Who’s Tommy with skill, restraint, and awe; practically the first thing you see when you fire up Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail are the words NO REFUNDS. And let other websites offer their wares in an easy-to-navigate structure; the just-launched Pythonline drags visitors through a series of fake home pages that culminate in a ”live” online chat with Queen Elizabeth (”Just one of your sons marries one screwed-up bulimic airhead and the whole country comes apart…”).

What made Monty Python’s Flying Circus such a blithering wonder when it debuted on the BBC in 1969 (and in the U.S. five years later) was the vicious absurdity with which the troupe dismantled television: It was as if nonsense poet Edward Lear had been reborn as an angry young man. The massive self-satisfaction of new media makes it ripe for the flaying, too: all that tosh about a brave new world of communications, all those geekoid buzzwords. And so The Quest for the Holy Grail is a frabjous hoot not because it dumps the 1975 comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail onto a CD-ROM with a few buttons and PhotoShop graphics; under the direction of Python‘s Eric Idle, Quest wholly reworks the movie into a multimedia game that pokes brutal, welcome fun at — multimedia games.

At its heart, Quest hews to the rules of the genre as set forth by Myst or The 7th Guest: You navigate through nine sequences based on the film, using logic and luck to collect Inventory items, view scenes from Holy Grail, and eventually win the Grail (whereupon you’re treated to a bizarre Terry Gilliam-animated scene that never made it into the movie). The Inventory contains such curios as ”dung,” ”Joseph of Aramathea,” and ”broccoli,” and you have to collect the Holly Grail, the Goldy Hail, and the Moldy Tail before eventually nabbing the bona fide Grail. There’s a Tetris parody replacing that game’s falling bricks with plunging plague victims, a Mortal Kombat goof featuring the film’s hapless Black Knight, and a jolly, politically incorrect game called ”Spank the Virgin.” Best of all, Quest rewards aimless clicking with silly noises and random gags, with bogus stained-glass stare-o-grams and a Knights-Who-Say-Ni Web browser, with scenes inexplicably dubbed in Japanese and Idle’s never-before-heard variations on his catch-phrase ”Bring out your dead!” (”Ream out your head!” ”Be nice to Fred!”).

If you’ve never seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, of course, all of this will be incomprehensible. But if you have seen the film, Quest will remind you how rich that tattered, muddy medieval satire is — how deeply its jokes may have lodged in your cranium over the years. Even the herky-jerky cheapness of the game’s animation dovetails nicely with the original Holy Grail‘s no-budget wit. By creating a CD-ROM that actually enhances its source material — and then shoots off in rewarding new directions — Idle and the 7th Level gang have, rather amazingly, nailed multimedia’s own Grail.

]ITALIC “PythOnline”] is simpler and less giddy. Created once again by Idle and 7th Level, it’s a sort of official response to the gazillions of Python fan pages honking up the Web. Idle has prevailed upon his fellow Pythoners to chip in ephemera old (part of a John Cleese lecture on cowardice) and new (photos from Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys; Terry Jones reporting from a Python film festival in Bulgaria), and there are laughs to be had in fake celebrity chat rooms. The real chat rooms, though, are a dead bore — most of the messages are from people having trouble working the downloadable game plug-in that lets you play the CD-ROM’s ”Catch the Cow” online. Perhaps most distressing is the site’s wan look: While Gilliam has provided new drawings to illustrate PythOnline, they’re little more than black-and-white doodles.

Idle plans to update the site on a regular basis, though, and as new Python-related projects roll out (John Cleese’s upcoming movie, Fierce Creatures, for instance), PythOnline intends to spotlight them with appropriate pomp. It could turn into a nice little online reminder that the troupe is still out there, scattered but subversive. For proof, however, that their humor retains the power to sing — and grumble, and fart, and shriek — seek ye the Grail. The Quest for the Holy Grail: A PythOnline: C+