The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

UPDATE: I wrote these note on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen almost 20 years ago. I revisited the film recently and was again swept away by its wild performances, stunning special effects, and over-the-top comedy. It really is one of Terry Gilliam’s underrated triumphs, and should remain a marvel for decades to come. And now that it’s finally available on a widescreen DVD and Blu-ray, it looks better than ever.

a review by Jeffrey Overstreet
Directed by Terry Gilliam; screenplay by Charles McKeown and Mr. Gilliam; director of photography, Giuseppe Rotunno; edited by Peter Hollywood; music by Michael Kamen; production designer, Dante Ferretti; produced by Thomas Schuhly; released by Columbia Pictures.
126 minutes. Rated PG.
STARRING: Baron Munchausen…John Neville Desmond/Berthold…Eric Idle Sally Salt…Sarah Polley Vulcan…Oliver Reed Rupert/Adolphus…Charles McKeown Bill/Albrecht…Winston Dennis Jeremy/Gustavus…Jack Purvis Queen Ariadne/Violet…Valentina Cortese Horatio Jackson…Jonathan Pryce Henry Salt…Bill Paterson Venus/Rose…Uma Thurman Daisy…Alison Steadman Heroic Officer…Sting King of the Moon…Ray D. Tutto (Robin Williams)

Why The Adventures of Baron Munchausen became a box-office disaster, and yet another famous disaster in the career of the imaginative genius Terry Gilliam, probably has more to do with problems in promotion than with problems of the film itself. It’s a fantastic, imaginative accomplishment.

John Neville is a charming, magical, mythical hero who grows younger the more people believe in him, older the more they don’t. He stumbles into war-torn Russia a battered, aging, bitter man, and finds that those for whom he fights are a deceived lot. The public is deluded by an excess of rationality. (Isn’t that the affliction of every Gilliam villain?)

Jonathan Pryce is priceless (sorry!) as the modern rational governor who, even as his city crumbles around him, declares, “We can’t start evacuating now! What would future generations think of us?!” Mocked and ignored, the legendary Baron despairs and lays down to die (ironically, he lies down in the bombed-out rubble of a play that would put on in honor of his famous character.)

Just in time, a little girl finds him, a girl who belives so passionately in the famous Baron Von Munchausen that perhaps he can find a reason to live on after all! Suddenly, he feels so much better that that he and his newfound friend (Sarah Polley) are off to battle the Turks!

Terry Gilliam shows more pure creativity in this film than in any of his others. He brings Monty Python wit to his interactions with the world’s fastest man (Python’s Eric Idle), the world’s strongest man, the man with magnifying glasses, and the very little man with big ears and lungs that can huff and puff a wall down.

In an array of unforgettable characters, Robin Williams and Oliver Reed take turns stealing the show. Williams is the King of the Moon, whose head spins around in space philosophizing while his body runs around the earth engaging in, well, more carnal activities with his wife. Reed lumbers about as Vulcan – “The God”, as he proudly boasts – who tries to keep the Baron from romancing Venus (Uma Thurman in her first significant movie role).

The many impressive visual effects carry the Baron to the moon, into the belly of a great (and ugly) fish, to the harem house of the Turkish Sultan (for a rousing performance of “The Torturer’s Apprentice”), and skyward in a hot air balloon made entirely of women’s underwear. Children, grownups, and all fans of Monty Python and other Gilliam ventures should have a wonderful time with this. The Baron would agree with Albert Einstein – “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” And viewers of all ages will find it difficult to argue.

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