I suspect that The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a film that needs little introduction even to those who have never seen it. Alongside Waterworld and Heaven's Gate the film has gained a certain sense of notoriety over the years. Renowned as an expensive flop, Munchausen nevertheless did not manage to ruin the career of Terry Gilliam, who proceeded to carry on making quirky, challenging fare.
In the same way as his other films, up to and including his latest The imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is certainly not a film for the masses. However, in the early days of Blu-ray disc one of the biggest criticisms of the format was that it was delivering brain-dead action fare at the expense of more eclectic movie making. It is therefore good to see films like this being released onto the HD format.
Speaking personally, I had never had the opportunity to view this film. I have certainly watched a large amount of Gilliam's output and generally find him an interesting filmmaker who can sometimes let his visionary sensibilities get in the way of the narrative. I have to say that from my third-hand knowledge of the film, I could imagine that Munchausen may well be one of his more excessive projects. However, I sat down with an open mind willing to be seduced by Gilliam's vision
The film's plot is relatively conventional. A young girl called Sally (Sarah Polley) unites with the eponymous Baron (John Neville) in an attempt to find his cohorts Berthold (Eric Idle), Adolphus (Charles McKeown), Gustavus (Jack Purvis), and Albrecht (Winstone Davies). Finding them involves a long and involving quest which will take the protagonists to the moon, the depths of the ocean, and even to the ancient world of the Gods.
What defines convention is the way that Gilliam goes about telling this story. The plot is just an excuse for one of the wildest flights of fantasy that he has ever committed to celluloid. In tone it is far more akin to the flights of animated fantasy he used to show in the Monty Python TV show than he used to present in the subsequent Python movies. Thus, in the days before CGI we are presented with some of the most ingenious model work, bringing to life a world not in the most realistic way, but in a way that simply adds to the vibrancy of the tale being told.
The trouble is that here Gilliam's tale is simply not strong enough to sustain the length of the film. To combat this, he often takes off in wildly unpredictable directions - directions which serve up more impressive imagery, but do little to serve the story. And perhaps for the first time in a Gilliam tale, there are signs that he has sold out to the expectations of Holly wood - with an ending which is simply too happy to have come from his pen. It may well be that this is how he envisioned the ending from the original concept, but it just doesn't seem to fit into the Gilliam sensibility to me.
You may not have heard of many of the cast here, but they will certainly be familiar to those who have followed Gilliam's work. They have all appeared in at least one of his films before this, and as such they are familiar with the requirements of working with him. It is not particularly easy to critique the work they produce here, as it is a tall tale told in a way that the actors will always be overshadowed by the events and effects around them. For example, it would be impossible to emote deeply whilst hurtling along on a giant cannon ball. However, they are all fine in the roles that they are cast in. Whereas none of them will win any acting awards, they all do a fine, if rather over-the-top job of presenting their characters to the audience.
That the film has an arresting visual style is really a given with Gilliam at the helm. He moves his camera with bravado, keeping the viewer entertained with constant moments that wow visually - it may all look a tad old fashioned in these modern day CGI times, but that is in no way a bad thing.
In summary, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is most emphatically not the disaster that you may suppose it to be. It most certainly has its flaws, that is for sure - the ending seems far too Hollywood for a typical Gilliam film, and there are some scenes which possibly veer too far into the surreal. Despite this, however, the film retains enough visual chutzpah to remain a very interesting watch. It may not be to everyone's taste, and if you have never seen it before you may want to rent it first, but you can never deny the originality on show here.
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