The Adventures of Judge Gordon Sullivan didn't involve massive CGI effects, either. Mostly they involved mastering the buttons on his DVD remote.
Our reviews of The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen: 20th Anniversary Edition (published April 14th, 2008) and And Now For Something Completely Hilarious Collection (published November 15th, 2005) are also available.
Remarkable. Unbelievable. Impossible. And true.
Terry Gilliam has consistently demonstrated a willingness to treat childhood with as much complexity as he does adulthood. The three films he's made with child protagonists (Time Bandits, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and Tideland) are all based in fantasy, but treat their subjects as fully developed (if not entirely grown) individuals. Whereas most directors see the fantasy genre as an opportunity to tart up fairy tales with gore and cleavage, Gilliam uses the tools of the unbelievable to investigate our perceptions of the world. In his investigations he refuses to shy away from "adult" topics, like sex and death, but they are always treated with the wonder and awe (not fear and revulsion) that is the hallmark of his understanding of childhood. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a perfect example of his concerns, as its protagonists are a young girl and an old man who constantly swap roles between parent and child while encountering a number of (to the adult mindset) perilous adventures.
On its 20th anniversary, Sony has brought us a lovely special edition to both DVD and Blu-ray. This high-definition disc is the perfect way to discover (or re-discover) the charm of Terry Gilliam's great flop.
Facts of the Case
The Baron Munchausen (John Neville, Urban Legend) is a quixotic aristocrat who relies on imagination (and a number of superhuman companions) to defend his city from invasion by the Turks. Using the performance of a play about his adventures as a framing narrative, we watch young Sally (Sarah Polley, Dawn of the Dead), who is swept along with the Baron as he travels the world to rescue the city. Imagination overcomes boring reason in this tale for children and adults.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is one of the Top 10 biggest flops in Hollywood history. With a budget over four times its box office of $8 million, the film was a calamity from the beginning. Fresh off the "success" of Brazil, Gilliam immediately began to try for financing with Arnon Milchan, his producer from Brazil. That didn't quite work out, so Gilliam secured independent financing as well as some cash from Columbia Pictures for U.S. distribution rights. Gilliam and company knew the budget would need to be bigger than the funds they'd raised, but production steamed ahead at Rome's famous Cinecittà. Even there, disaster followed disaster. Although their local contact promised good results on the cheap, the sets were continually over budget and behind schedule, which only added to the mounting costs of production. As the budget grew and funds shrank, Columbia sent "overseers" to protect their investment, which only enraged Gilliam and made the film even more difficult to make. Of course, Gilliam eventually finished the film (substantially cut from his original vision) and gave it to Columbia to release. However, all was not well at Columbia. During production of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen there had been a changing of the guard; many of the executives who approved the Baron were gone. Not wanting a product of the old regime to outshine the new suits, Columbia unceremoniously dropped Munchausen into theaters with little advertising or support. Although the film tested well, it was never put in enough theaters to make any money. For any number of reasons, it's amazing Terry Gilliam ever made another film.
I was aware of all of this when I sat down to watch Munchausen. I was alert, scanning for any evidence of corner-cutting or compromise on the part of the production. That lasted about 10 minutes. After that, I was swept up in the Baron's story and the fantastic world Gilliam & Co. created to tell it. The costumes, the sets, and the special effects were all perfectly orchestrated to immerse the viewer in the world of the Baron. In every sense of the word I was transported.
However, with that said, Munchausen is a triumph of atmosphere over character. I loved the world that Gilliam created, but I wasn't a big fan of the characters. I admire the Baron's insistence on imagination over reason, but he often came off as merely cantankerous and just plain contrary rather than purely imaginative. Sally is an audience surrogate, so it's little wonder that her personality doesn't shine through. Still it's a waste considering the quick glimpses we see as she effaces her father's posters to read "Salt and Daughter" instead of "Salt and Sons." The rest of the characters get even less screen time, making them even less well-rounded than Sally. The only characters that are able to rise above this limitation are the King of the Moon (played by Robin Williams) and The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson (played by Jonathan Pryce).
Despite my feelings about the characters (since I suspect that they were sacrificed in the name of budget), the actors give amazing performances. John Neville plays the Baron with the same gravitas one would expect of a Shakespearean king, which only serves to underscore the hilarity of his predicaments. Robin Williams is at his frantic best as the King of the Moon, and Eric Idle does an especially good job as one of the Baron's sidekicks, Berthold. To me, the standout performance comes from Jonathan Pryce, playing a character who is the complete antithesis of his innocent bureaucrat in Brazil. Here, he plays an officious functionary obsessed with rules for the sake of rules. It is one of the most perfect characters Gilliam has ever put on screen.
Far from perfect, however, is the audiovisual presentation of the film. But, that's to be expected. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was made in the days before rampant CGI effects, so most of its effects are created through the use of a number of layers of optical printing. This causes a (sometimes dramatic) degradation in film quality. So, there is significant variability in the visuals of the film. Some scenes look as bright, clean, and detailed as those of the latest blockbuster. Others look clear in part of the frame, but soft and grainy in others. I have little doubt, however, that this is the best the film has looked since its initial theatrical run, so Sony is to be commended for doing the best they could with limited materials. The audio fares slightly better than the film, with an effective mix of dialogue and effects presented in surround sound.
In truth, I could listen to Terry Gilliam for hours. Luckily, that's what Sony has provided with this Blu-ray edition of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Gilliam and co-writer/actor Charles McKeown start off the extras with a commentary. It's mostly Gilliam's show, but the two share their passion for the medium and Munchausen. The other big extra is a three-part documentary "The Madness and Misadventures of Munchausen," which spends 70 minutes going over the making of the film in greater detail. It includes interviews with most of the crew, as well as a number of key cast members (including some wonderfully candid comments from Eric Idle comparing Gilliam and Stanley Kubrick). This documentary doesn't try to gloss over the horror that was the making of Munchausen. There's also a Blu-ray exclusive trivia track that runs along with the film, providing insights into the historical Baron as well as production details. Obviously, some material is duplicated across these extras, but they are delivered with such care and passion that it's never boring to hear the same story more than once. The deleted scenes don't provide anything meaty, but they're a fun addition. Finally, for those who love Gilliam's particular brand of creation, there's a feature that shows his storyboards with voiceover by Gilliam and co-writer McKeown.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Terry Gilliam's films are not for everyone, and if you are not swept away by the grand design of the film, you are unlikely to appreciate its other charms. I know a number of people aren't fond of Gilliam's aesthetic qualities, and this film will not likely win those individuals over.
Terry Gilliam has yet again created a self-contained world full of magic and wonder. I might hesitate to show this film to young children (the under-6 crowd), but I have no reservations about recommending it to anyone else looking for a bit of fantasy in our modern world. Sony has done an admirable job bringing the Baron (as well as the story of its creation) to high-def.
The Baron is found not guilty, and the court begs his pardon for keeping him from his imaginative duties.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Terry Gilliam and Co-Writer/Actor Charles McKeown
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