The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

Posted by on Dec 30, 2011 in Fantasy/Adventure | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: Fantastical acts of violence, a creepy Grim Reaper, some sexuality, and a gaudy display of Britishness. I say, good show.

I was the ripe age of five when this film came out and I never saw a movie quite so wonderfully insane and fantastical. It’s as if the Mad Hatter and Homer (the Greek writer, not The Simpsons patriarch) collaborated to write the script, which is based on a collection of centuries-old tall tales by Rudolf Erich Raspe about the mysterious historical character of the titular moniker. To this day, however, the phrase Adventures of Baron Munchausen appears in the filmmakers encyclopedia alongside words like “catastrophe,” “flop,” and “disaster.” Which is odd, because for viewers it’s a refreshing and original film like no other.

Famed Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam directs this timeless classic from the book of the same name, both of which grapple with finding a place for fantasy and imagination in the Age of Reason. The story takes place in the late 18th century in the midst of a heated war. On the interior of a nearby city, a stage company is performing Munchausen’s adventures to give soldiers a taste of escapism. The play comes to a halt, however, when a crazed man claiming to be Munchausen storms the stage. The film then makes a flashback transition similar to Olivier’s Richard III where the story becomes a dizzying mix of reality and fantasy, until we can’t make heads nor tails of exactly which is which.

With a young girl named Sally at his side, Munchausen (John Neville) leads a journey to retrieve his superhero servants (one is a fast runner, one has sensitive hearing and powerful lungs, another has exceptional sight and marksmanship, and the last is the strongest man in the world) to save the town from certain destruction. His journey introduces us to the crass king and romance-seeking queen of the moon, gods and goddesses of the underworld, and the innards of a sea monster.

The trip takes us to lands that resemble different art movements. It seems like the moon contracted Salvador Dali and Futurists for decorating, while the underground is laced with Romanticism, including a direct reproduction of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. And in good Python tradition, Munchausen continually takes jabs at political and religious themes. While Gilliam makes light of these serious themes, at times it’s just as potent as Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz in this respect. More important than politics, however, is the underlying message that youthful imaginations give our future promise. The reason, logic, and scientific principles are presented as petty and mundane, or “lies and balderdash” as Munchausen says, compared to those of fantasy.

This film is truly one for all ages and has great comedic performances by Eric Idle, Robin Williams, and Jonathan Pryce, plus Uma Thurman’s screen debut. As for its fame as a screen disaster, Munchausen came in $23 million over budget (about twice the slated amount) and gave Gilliam an unfortunate reputation with producers (Brazil and Don Quixote didn’t help, either).

With Oscar-nominated makeup, costumes, art direction, and visual effects, Gilliam delivers this wacky and intelligent riot of a film. Coupled with Time Bandits and Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen completes a trilogy involving three stages of life (youth, middle age, elderly) and how they affect our individual sense of imagination and fantasy.

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