The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Columbia Pictures 1988.

Before watching the movie:

Terry Gilliam made some movies in the 80s. Specifically, he made three movies about dreamers, which Gilliam has come to call the “Trilogy of Imagination.” Three different movies about protagonists of different ages trying to escape the oppressive world around them. I’ve already seen Time Bandits (the dreamer as a child) and Brazil (the dreamer in middle age). Baron Munchausen is an older man going on fanciful adventures that may not exactly be accurate.

I’m not sure how I expect this film to make me feel. Time Bandits was fun and the end was depressing but hopeful, Brazil was a long downward spiral through madness, and Twelve Monkeys was depressing throughout. “Munchausen” looks like some good fun, but I don’t know how much of that is a misrepresentation for marketing purposes.

After watching the movie:

A European city under siege from the Turks hosts a theater company performing “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” when the elderly baron himself bursts in and declares the show terribly inaccurate. The town, stuck in the perfectly (il)logical “Age of Reason,” rejects him, but the theater director’s daughter Sally Salt believes in Munchausen, who vows to save the town, but he needs to go on a quest to collect his old gang of servants, the fastest man who ever lived, the strongest man who ever lived, a man with perfect eyesight, and a man with incredible hearing and powerful breath. Munchausen and Sally travel to the moon and consort with the lunar king and queen, fall into a volcano and meet Vulcan and Venus, and get swallowed by a monstrous fish along the way. But it’s been decades since Munchausen’s wonderful gang has been in action, and Death is always over his ancient shoulder.

I was pleased to find that this is a completely non-unsettling film. It has its sinister moments, but the closest I came to being disturbed by it was a moment early on when the Sultan plays an organ that tortures prisoners for some of its notes, which is played for comedy.

I’m not familiar with John Neville, but he carried the film very well. Over the course of the story Munchausen’s age varies more or less corresponding to how old he feels. This was accomplished not only with very good makeup work, but also in a subtle change in Neville’s voice quality and motion.  I’m not sure what I can say about Sarah Polley. I was never distracted by a bad performance from her, which is already a lot to say about a child actress. Additionally, Robin Williams makes an appearance as the schizophrenic king of the Moon in the world’s most transparent pseudonymed performance.

For the most part, the effects were good. I was particularly impressed with the space effects of falling from the moon. On the other hand, there were quite a lot of shots where the actors were clearly on wires, not just from the way they were moving or the fact that they didn’t bother to paint out the wire, but because it looked like the harness was protruding from their clothes.  I was actually more impressed with the stage flying with thick, intended-to-be-seen rope in the introduction than the wire work.

This was a tall tale of great fun, and didn’t feel nearly as episodic as I expected. Looking back, it seems that no characters had any growth over the course of it, but they were still easy to invest in and quite enjoyable. Just be advised that Uma Thurman’s portrayal of Venus is briefly shown in full Botticelli.

Watch this movie: and see Terry Gilliam at his least creepy.

Don’t watch this movie: expecting the message to beat you over the head.

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