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Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 June 2008
Image“Prodigious” is a good word; the dictionary says it means “wonderful, marvelous,” but also has the additional meaning of gigantic.  And it sounds fine, too.  It's rare to have a movie to which that adjective can be readily applied, “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” is, at the very least, prodigious.

But whatever it cost to make this gigantic fantasy was worth it, even if it never made Columbia Pictures a dime.  Yeah, I know, it ain't my money invested -- but I wish it were.  I would be very proud to own a part of such a glorious work of wonderment, even if I never got my money back.  Near the beginning of this colossal undertaking, set in the mid-18th century, written by Charles McKeown and Terry Gilliam and directed by Gilliam, the theater manager-star (Bill Paterson), appearing in his own production of “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” tries to get the unimaginative, corrupt local official Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce) to allow him to continue his production by quoting from Paris Match: “Good value for the money,” said the French newspaper.  And that's what you have in Gilliam’s movie, too.

Though most who have heard of this glorious liar are unaware of it, like Cyrano de Bergerac, like D'Artagnan, Baron Munchausen was a real person.  He was a German baron, a gentleman and a soldier, well-known in his own day for telling tall tales about his exploits.  Even while he was still alive, books of the Baron’s amazing, impossible adventures began to appear, probably both embarrassing and delighting him.  The best-known collection of stories was by Fritz Raspe, the basis for several other movies, short subjects and plays.  Two of the other movies, 1943’s “Münchausen” (made in Nazi Germany, but without a trace of propaganda) and 1961’s “The Fabulous Baron Munchausen,” though flawed, are wonderful films themselves.  Munchausen’s name became a synonym for gloriously exaggerated lies, and even turns up as the name of an unusual psychological syndrome, these days occasionally the basis for TV series plots.

During the “Age of Reason,” as an opening title tells us, a city is under siege by the Sultan of Turkey, whose dragon-headed cannons belch fire at the non-too-secure city walls.  Within, the city officials bustle about with their paperwork, and a group of players stage their production of the adventures of Baron Munchausen, known as a grand liar.  The real Baron himself (John Neville) turns up, fulminating that the players have everything all wrong. And then, magically, just like the Baron says—“all reality is lies and balderdash”—reality and fantasy become inextricably blended, swirled together in the prodigious (yay) imagination of Terry Gilliam, whose films look like no one else's.  (Or have you ever seen a movie that looks like “Brazil”?  I haven't.)  With one fell stroke, Gilliam and co-writer Charles McKeown, does something that other filmmakers have tried to do and failed: re-establish the value of “Once upon a time...”   “Munchausen” is dreamy, hip and sophisticated, but childlike in its love of the grand, the fanciful, the miraculous.  It never winks at the audience, and instead invites us all to join in the festivities.

It's a bit too long, a bit ponderous.  The first time I saw the film, I wasn't fond of the (unbilled) appearance of Robin Williams as the King of the Moon, but the second time, it snapped into place, just like his flying head snaps onto his shoulders.  To save the city from the Sultan, Munchausen and little Sally Salt (Sarah Polley) set off to gather his team of miraculous servants: Berthold (Eric Idle), who can run faster than the wind; Adolphus (co-scripter McKeown), who can see around the Earth and back again; Albrecht (Winston Dennis), who can carry the weight of the Sultan's treasure on his shoulders, and tiny Gustavus (Jack Purvis), who can hear anything, anywhere, and can blow with hurricane force.

After Munchausen reveals how his tricking of the Sultan led to the war, he and Sally float off in a balloon.  They first visit the Moon, encountering the King, whose head is detachable from his body, which loves carnality.  Lowering themselves from the Moon's crescent by a rope made of a lock of the hair of the Queen of the Moon (Valentine Cortese), Munchausen, Sally and the rescued Berthold plunge into the crater of Mount Etna, where they meet the explosive god Vulcan (Oliver Reed, absolutely delightful) and his ethereally beautiful wife, the Goddess Venus (Uma Thurman, in her first movie role).  Here they encounter Albrecht, and later, in the belly of a colossal fish, they finally meet not only Gustavus and Adolphus, but Munchausen's wonderful white stallion, Bucephalus.  And then they return to battle the Sultan.

Each of the encounters is a different debate on the concept of reason vs. emotion/fantasy.  It's literalized on the Moon—populated by flat cutouts of buildings—and sublimated in the volcano crater.  In the belly of the fish, everyone gives up on imagination, except Sally Salt and, finally, the Baron himself.  “He won't get far on hot air and fantasy,” sneers Horatio Jackson, but the Baron will journey light-years yet, because imagination is more important, more lasting, more real than reality.

Technically, the film is awesome.  Production designer Dante Ferretti is a glory of the world, if only for the ballroom of Venus and Vulcan: attended by fluttering cherubs, the Baron and Venus waltz far off the ground, hovering in the air of the fountain-filled room.  The special effects, under the direction of Richard Conway, are the kind of magic that most movies have given up on: by not attempting to be absolutely real, Conway delights us with wonders, as when Albrecht whirls three entire ships around his head, to throw at the Sultan's army.  The Baron’s balloon is made of the undergarments of the city’s women; they’re rendered in soft pastels, of dozens of different fabrics and textures; in high definition, the balloon takes on the look of a beautiful old oil painting.

John Neville, an actor basically unknown in the U.S. (he once played Sherlock Holmes, in “A Study in Terror”), is all gleaming, grinning humbug as the Baron, romantic, energetic and filled with joy and wit.  His age shifts back and forth, apparently with the intensity of his adventures.  By 1988, he’d retreated from his busy acting career, and as the commentary track has it, had gone to Canada to teach Shakespeare to the Eskimos.  “Baron Munchausen,” however, re-ignited his career, and he’s been busy again ever since.  He was, for example, the “well-manicured man” on “The X-Files.”

Everyone else is also wonderful, one and all; as in “The Wizard of Oz”, one of many films that Gilliam clearly loves and is paying tribute to, many of the actors play two roles, one in “reality,” and one in the Baron's adventures.  But reality is mutable in Terry Gilliam's universe.  Sean Connery was originally signed to play the King of the Moon, but budgetary concerns caused the Moon sequence to be greatly reduced from the original script, and Connery backed out, to be replaced by Robin Williams—probably the only time that particular substitution could have happened.  Gilliam’s ex-Monty Python partner Michael Palin was to have played Vulcan, but had to bow out, replaced by Oliver Reed, who’s clearly having a grand time. 

It's been a swift rise from the depths of the failed “Jabberwocky” to the glories of “Brazil” and “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” for Terry Gilliam.  His apprenticeship with Monty Python sharpened his wit and broadened his taste, but he's not playing Pythonesque anachronistic games with “Munchausen” (or in “Brazil,” for that matter).  Just as a movie, “Munchausen” doesn't always work, but it doesn’t matter much  It may even be too stuffed with beauty and magic, but who could possibly complain about that?  It's a wonder, a marvel. 

Unlike  Gilliam’s career as a director.  "Baron Munchausen" itself became notorious for budgetary and scheduling nightmares--at the end of the first week, as Gilliam himself admits (or rather boasts) in the commentary track, they were a week behind schedule.  And things got worse from there.  Movie companies became fearful of hiring him; not only had this movie gone over schedule and, well, prodigiously over budget, it was a boxoffice failure.  He has turned up occasionally since, though each film is viewed by skeptics as another example of Gilliam's overindulgence.  “The Fisher King” (1991) and “Twelve Monkeys” (1995) were mostly well received; "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (1998) was met with mixed reviews, while "The Brothers Grimm" 2005 was a critical and financial disaster.  "Tideland" (2005) was barely released.  And he continues to have problems; Heath Ledger was partway through starring in Gilliam's next movie when he died.

Surprisingly, the two careers that were most successfully launched by this movie were those of Uma Thurman, who keeps reinventing herself as an actress, and Sarah Polley, the little girl in this tale.  She’s continued to act, but as an adult branched out into writing and directing.  She directed Julie Christie to an Oscar nomination for “Away from Her,” and as an actress, played Nabby Adams in HBO’s recent “John Adams” miniseries.

The making of “Baron Munchausen” could be a movie in itself—and apparently is.  This Blu-Ray disc contains a documentary on the making of the film, but it was unplayable on my system; too bad—I assume it’s fascinating.  What I could access were the entertaining commentary track by Gilliam and McKeown; they seem to regard themselves as much funnier than they actually are—but they really are amusing much of the time.  There’s a small handful of deleted scenes, of relatively little interest, especially considering the baroque movie itself.  The trivia track worked intermittently for me; I could read some of the notes—on the real Munchausen, on the film, and on history—but others were peculiarly missing.

The movie itself is a wonderfully well-suited to a high-definition video presentation.   The production design is a controlled riot of detail, and that’s what HD does best: present the details of the film, no matter how small.  The luxurious fabrics, the crud-filled streets of the besieged city, the splendor of the palaces—all pop into life on this disc.  It’s a wonder for the eyes.

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