CAPSULE: THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1988)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam

FEATURING: , , , , Oliver Reed, Valentina Cortese, , ,

PLOT: As a medieval European city prepares for invasion from a mysterious Sultan, a local theater troupe stages a play about the legendary fabulist Baron Munchausen. Midway into the show, an elderly audience member (Neville) proclaims that the play is all lies and he, the real Munchausen, will explain why. The story that  follows jumps back and forth between fantasy and reality, and flirts with time travel.

Still from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LISTDespite being directed by the weird and wonderful Terry Gilliam, responsible for one baroque fantasy film after another–Twelve Monkeys, The Brothers Grimm, The Fisher King, etc.–The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is wonderful, but not all that weird, at least not for a fantasy film. Like The Wizard of Oz, not every cinematic flight of fancy is necessarily bizarre.

COMMENTSThe hugely expensive Baron Munchausen, which despite being given a very limited theatrical release by its studio (Columbia) and subsequently becoming one of the biggest box-office flops of all time, received critical raves upon its initial release, went on to find the audience it deserved on VHS and DVD. This visually stunning fantasia, like all Gilliam films, is about the line separating fantasy and reality, and—SPOILER ALERT—unlike Gilliam’s much-loved Brazil and Time Bandits, Munchausen manages to pull a surprise happy ending out of its hat at the last moment, which really makes one think this could have been a hit if Columbia had given it a chance. Munchausen is an admittedly episodic adventure that is at times unwieldy and over-the-top, but only in the sense that every penny of its then gigantic $46 million budget is up on the screen. The director’s usual visual invention is complemented by his legendary sense of humor, and by stellar performances all around. Of particular note is Williams’ out-of-control King of the Moon, Reed’s hot-tempered Vulcan, and an 18-year-old Thurman ideally cast as Venus on the half shell (previously the subject of a memorable “Monty Python” animation by Gilliam). The PG-rated Munchausen is a much more family-friendly, accessible and upbeat fantasy than Brazil and makes a fine companion piece to Time Bandits. The movie is such fun that there are little to no on-screen signs that the film was a notoriously troubled production. Any epic picture is undoubtedly difficult to make, but the legendary problems affecting Munchausen are thoroughly and entertainingly explained on the DVD’s 70-minute “behind the scenes” documentary. Also on the DVD is an enlightening commentary with Gilliam and actor/co-writer Charles McKeown, storyboards, a handful of deleted scenes, and, on the Blu-ray, an on-screen “Trivia Track.” The film itself looks and sounds just fine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“..the movie’s overall movement often seems closer to that of a boiling cauldron than to any logical progression. But this wild spectacle has an energy, a wealth of invention, and an intensity that for my money still puts most of the streamlined romps of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to shame..”–Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader (contemporaneous)

7 thoughts on “CAPSULE: THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1988)”

  1. This is a great film – surreal, scary in parts and often laugh out loud funny. One of my favourites.
    Nice addition to the recommended stable.

  2. Robin Williams was cast as the King of the Moon at very short notice (I don’t think he’s even credited) because Sean Connery walked out. So it’s official – Sir Sean thought this movie had a worse script than The Avengers, Zardoz, or even Highlander II. Though given the amount of dreck he thought it was a good idea to appear in, that’s probably a recommendation.

    1. It had nothing to do with the script, it were the budget cuts. Originally, the King of the Moon scene was supposed to have grand architectural sets and thousands of extras as the king’s subjects. When Film Finances stopped the film for several days and the budget had to be re-negotiated, all that remained were the royal couple and a few surreal cut-outs for the city. Connery considered that to be an insult and left.

      Enter Robin Williams, who went uncredited because his lawyers were afraid both of Gilliam’s reputation and that the film would be a flop both commercially and with the critics. His credit eventually read “Ray D. Tutto”, resembling Italian “Re de Tutto”, or “King of Everything”.

  3. The city is not Medieval, it’s more sort of a romantically mythizized generic Vienna somewhere between the 17th and the very early 19th century (I guess the weirdest thing is how Terry’s combined the clashing philosophies and art movements of classicism and romanticism with this movie). I think it should also be noted that “Munchausen” is Terry’s most-beloved film among his fans while the casual crowd usually goes with “Brazil”, which is weird exactly because “Munchausen” is much less weird than is “Brazil”.

    What’s important to understand is Terry’s philosphy behind his Trilogy of Imagination. Terry is equally a late refuge from the counterculture as well as a Renaissance Man valuing imagination and wide-eyed wonder who wants us to remember that the world can be a million possible things, if we can only see it, rather than being scared all the time of the powers that be. It’s what reason and the Age of Enlightenment were originally about, but something went wrong down the line, where liberating reason has turned into cold instrumental reason and dischenchantment, where a coldly calculating ratio has turned people into conforming numbers to file away or crush them upon the slightest misdemeanor.

    Kevin, the kid from “Time Bandits”, is too young to change anything or fully grasp the inherent, overarching wrongfulness of our modern society, and Sam from “Brazil” as a middle-aged man is too caught up in everyday necessities of being a cog in the wheel of the social machinery to even see what’s truly wrong in his world or accept his responsibility for it. It’s only Baron Munchausen who’s old and free enough to see what’s wrong and has the standing to change things. That’s why “Time Bandits” and especially “Brazil” are largely about what’s wrong today, they’re Terry’s modern dystopias. “Munchausen”, on the other hand, is his utopia, of what reason and the Enlightenment could’ve been when they were still young. In “Munchausen”, we have room to breath because we’re still free, whereas in the trilogy’s two earlier entries, we’re stifled and oppressed by what went wrong with modernity.

    Here’s two seminal must-read essays on Terry’s overall take on themes such as reason, imagination, the invididual vs. society, the Enlightenment and so on:

    – Georg Seeßlen: “The Liars, the Dreamers, and the Madmen: The Pragmatic Fantasy of Terry Gilliam: https://www.facebook.com/notes/benjamin-dietze/translation-the-dreamers-the-madmen-and-the-liars-the-pragmatic-fantasy-of-terry/282803805109423?pnref=lhc (German original: http://www.filmzentrale.com/essays/gilliamgs.htm )

    – Keith James Hamel: “Modernity and Mise-en-scene: Terry Gilliam and ‘Brazil’ “: http://www.imagesjournal.com/issue06/features/brazil.htm 4 page essay that relates Terry’s philosophy in his movies to Max Weber and Arnold Toynbee (while notably not quoting Weber’s main work of “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”, most likely because of the evil C-word). What’s notable here is that Hamel’s notion of kitsch, as consciously reflected and used in Terry’s films, resembles to a T Adorno’s function and definition of the culture industry aka entertainment industry.

    Adorno’s Critical Theory indeed has its roots also in Weber’s analysis of modern rationality, but I think what we’re seeing in “Brazil” resembles much more how “enlightened earth radiates under the sign of disaster triumphant” as manifest in our moderny totally/totalitarian “administered world” from Adorno and Horkheimer’s “Dialectic of Enlightenment” (1944/’47). Just like American audiences were given “The Fisher King” instead of “Munchausen” as we Europeans were, the main work of the Frankfurt School’s Critical Theory with a larger influence in America than CT’s seminal DoA was Marcuse’s “One-Dimensional Man” (1964), which is arguably easier to read and where many Americans were first exposed to the ideas relevant here when it comes to “Brazil” and what went wrong during the course of modernity. Marcuse’s earlier “Eros and Civilization” (1955) may also be of interest here.

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