Where was the Baron in the Sixties, when we really could have used a flight of fancy like this?

James Plath's picture

"The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" is the kind of film I could get really enthusiastic about . . . for about as long as the Baron's adventures stay tethered fairly close to Earth. Once the teller of fantastic tales takes a trip with a young girl to the moon and meets a gigantic man there with a detachable head, well, for me that's when things start to go a little off-kilter, until things circle back for a slam-bang ending.

Then again, we're dealing with Monty Pythoner Terry Gilliam and his pal Charles McKeown, two guys who were also collaborating on the screenplay for "Brazil" around the same time that they were crafting "Baron Munchausen," so you know that weird is just going to go with the territory.

And the territory here is the world of the imagination.

Sally: "Where are we going?
Baron: "To the moon."
Sally: "That'll take ages.
Baron: "No it won't. The king and queen are charming. Their heads are detachable, you know. You do believe me, don't you?"
Sally: "I'm doing my best."

There was a real Baron Munchausen, a dandy-looking young nobleman who fought the Turks in the 1740s and was renowned for telling elaborate tall tales about his adventures--some of which involved escaping from the moon by cutting the rope at the top to attach it to the bottom, riding cannonballs to their destination, or dealing with a cloak that's gone daft and is taking the rest of his wardrobe with it. Rudolph Erich Raspe first codified the stories for the reading public in his 1895 book, The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen, but Gilliam says in one of several substantial bonus features that it was a 1961 Czech film by Karel Zeman, with its combination of animated illustrations and live actors, that inspired him to take it to another level with all live-action.

I can't even wait for the "video" section to report that for a catalog title that's 20 years old, there are sequences in "Baron Muchausen" that look as pristine in Blu-ray as films that were made last year. The colors, the level of detail are all gorgeous in some scenes. But there are others--much like the inconsistency in the scenes themselves--where there's a graininess that makes it look like quite another film.

Still, "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" is full of enough jaw-dropping visuals, Pythonesque lines, and celebrations of storytelling and belief that it's no stretch of the imagination to recommend this title. It just won't be for everyone. Children, for example, might think that severed heads rolling are a bit much to take for any PG-rated film, and the flights of fantasy can seem awfully random and nonsensical to young minds. Heck, even old minds might wonder why certain things are occuring as they are. When that happens, just remember that "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" is a flight of fancy and a film devoted primarily to visual effects.

The plot is relatively simple: the Turks are bombarding a European city about the time that the actual Baron lived. It's a strikingly surreal AND realistic opening, with plenty of weary or shell-shocked faces among the walking wounded. In the midst of all this turmoil is a statue of the Baron that has been broken, and playbills announcing a performance of the Baron's adventures by The Henry Salt & Son players. Make that daughter, with Sarah Polley playing Sally Salt and Bill Paterson her flamboyant father. Their performance is a joy to watch in all its period splendor, but it's interrupted not just by the cannonballs that crash here and there, but by the intrusion of a dazed but persistent character (John Neville) claiming to be the REAL Baron Munchausen. What's more, he tells them that he's the reason for the war, and proceeds to tell them a convoluted story of how he came to incur the rage of the Sultan (Peter Jeffrey).

Like "The Wizard of Oz," which cast actors in dual roles as figures in both "real life" and fantasy, this film does the same with the Henry Salt players, who also appear in the Baron's fantasies. Or is the play the fantasy and the fantasy the reality? Whatever the case, the Baron and his "servants" with superpowers are the most fun to watch in this 127-minute outing. Eric Idle plays Desmond/Berthold, who's so speedy that he has to wear a large ball and chain to keep him from moving about too quickly. When he does, it's like a Speedy Gonzales or Road Runner moment, and played just about as wacky. The other troupers are Winston Dennis as Bill/Albrecht, Jack Purvis as Jeremy/Gustavus, and Eric Idle as Desmond/Berthold, whose powers cover a full range of things: super eyesight, super hearing, super strength, and the ability to shoot a wondrous gun at unimaginable distances.

"Baron Munchausen" held my children's attention until they lost sight of the plot, and that occurred not coincidentally about the same time as the Baron and stowaway Sally take off on their own adventure, leaving the super-servants behind. When Robin Williams appears as the king of the moon (and Valentina Cortese as his Queen Ariadne), the production design is stunning, but it all gets a bit too much like "Alice in Wonderland." Either you're going to like this voyage into Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum-dom, or you're not. Dads will perk up when Uma Thurman appears as Venus, sans clothing (all tastefully done, mind you), but when the Baron is hobnobbing with the king and queen of the moon and the god Vulcan, it feels like we've gone a little too far from the initial trajectory of the tall tales. The humor, too, feels less biting during these sessions, less like something you'd see in a Python hold. When the Sultan is ready to off the Baron and asks if he has any famous last words, the Baron replies "Not yet," to which the Sultan says, "'Not yet'? Is that famous?" Good stuff. The closest we get to that kind of cleverness is when the king of the moon says, "I think, therefore you is."

And yet, even when the lines or the plot let us down, the visuals pick up the slack. That's not surprising, because, as I said, "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" is first and foremost a visual effects film. But where was the Baron in the Sixties, when we really could have used a flight of fancy like this?

There are a number of scenes where the open-air shots are grainy (a 6/10 at best), but then you look down at two characters treading water in the next shot and the clarity and level of detail is nothing short of remarkable (a 9 or 10). For the most part it's a wonderful picture, but there are also a number of those grainy scenes that intrude. "Baron Munchausen" was transferred to a 50GB disc using AVC/MPEG-4 technology and presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which stretches to fill out the 16x9 monitor. Black levels are strong again, except during those grainy sequences which also tend to look a very slightly washed out. The curiosity is that there are such astounding moments of clarity that you're quick to forgive those grainy and color-robbed segments, especially when you hear on the bonus features all that the filmmakers had to go through to make this film.

The featured soundtrack on this one is an English or French Dolby TrueHD 5.1, and it's a pretty vibrant audio, with a full and rich bass and pretty good use of the rear effects speakers. Especially when the cannonballs fly you also get a nice sense of movement across the speakers, and there's a nice wide spread across the front speakers-though at times, the dialogue and central placement of characters makes it seem as if the front center speaker is bearing a lot of the burden. For an effects film, there's a decent balance between the booms and explosions and the dialogue.

If you're thinking about getting into filmmaking, you'd better avoid these bonus features. Otherwise, you'll hear people like Gilliam and Idle say how rotten folks are in the business, and how Gilliam had to pay people out of his pocket because the financing reverted to Film Finance, and they pulled the plug. You'll hear how there were three producers and enough conflict between one of them and Gilliam to last a lifetime. To be honest, while I felt for these guys, I really got tired of hearing about the politics on every single feature. You hear it on the commentary track with Gilliam and McKeown, you hear it in spades on "The Madness and Misadventures of Munchausen" (a three-part making-of feature that's almost all strife and politics), and you even get a sense of it on the Blu-ray exclusive trivia track every now and then.

In other words, if you're not into studio politics, about 75 percent of this stuff won't appeal to you. You'll wish that there were more revelations like how Sean Connery was slated to play the King of the Moon, but was replaced by mutual consent after the script evolved in a different direction. Williams was brought onboard as a last-minute replacement to do the part for practically nothing, but because he didn't trust the producers he and his agent insisted that he not be credited, so the studio couldn't "pimp" Robin Williams . . . meaning, they couldn't use Williams to sell more tickets or, now, Blu-rays and DVDs. As I said, it's interesting for a while, but it always seems to come back to a kind of bitter reflection.

There are three storyboards with intro and outro by the filmmakers to show how some scenes were originally conceived (but had to be changed because of money), and four deleted scenes as well.

The trivia track is okay, but sluggish on my Samsung BD-P1400. An icon would come up, then the lettering, then the lettering would fade, and finally the icon. It just felt like a slow, almost taunting process, while the trivia itself seemed less than astounding. I actually wanted more from the original book than what we got.

Bottom Line:
"The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" isn't a film that was made specifically for children, though director Terry Gilliam admits that partly made this because of his daughter. Mostly, it was a story that stuck with him from the time he heard about it and from the time he was struck by the visuals of the 1961 Czech film version, and wanted to create something so highly visual that it would just pop off the screen. The effects are very good, and so is the whole visual look-good enough to earn Oscar nominations (but no wins) for Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Effects/Visual Effects, and Best Makeup. But Gilliam says that "Momentum is everything in filmmaking," and what momentum this one lost in production unfortunately transferred to the screen. Despite a second-act sag, the visuals still make "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" a worthwhile film--especially if you see it, as Gilliam does, as part of a trilogy involving "Time Bandits" and "Brazil."


Film Value