director Terry Gilliam
The only time that I had seen Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was on VHS in 1990. At that time, I wasn’t terribly familiar with it, though I had been very familiar with his 1985 film Brazil which was probably one of the first “art films” that I got into. At the time, though there was a lot to like about Munchausen, I, like my friends, was inclined to consider it sort of mediocre, which given the circumstances of seeing it, makes some sense.
It was, however, in considering potentially entertaining fantasy adventure films for my kids, especially having just watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974) at their behest, that I came to reconsider Gilliam’s great adventure film. The kids had no idea what to expect, and I, over 20 years out from having seen it before, was due for some surprises, too.
More than anything, I was surprised by how charming and fun most of the film was. If anything, it brought to mind such classic adventure fare as The Thief of Bagdad (1940), a solid, while quite whimsical romp, with some truly outstanding design elements and good fun. The film is a long one, over 2 hours, and some of the sequences have less verve and fun as some others, it could doubtlessly use a nip or tuck here and there to tighten it up. Still, it’s a very sound and good fantasy adventure, which Clara liked very much and Felix liked to some extent.
Set in some time in the 18th Century in a “town” besieged by the Turks, a small theater troupe is performing the adventures of the baron Munchausen, a popular series of stories based on the tall tales told and attributed to an actual Baron. They are performing amidst an onslaught, when suddenly an elderly fellow, claiming to be the real Baron steps forth and begins spinning his tales, with really only the young daughter of the troupe leader (a nine-year-old Sarah Polley) who takes him for real.
But then he is “real”. The film’s main thrust, outside of weaving a rollicking yarn, is the aspect of fantasy in the realm of “reason”. As the intertitles tells us, the story takes place in “The Age of Reason” in which people continue to bomb the hell out of one another and when the film comes to its grand finale, the difference between the “real” and the “fantasy” is sort of clumsily (though perhaps intentionally) kept fuzzy.
Eric Idle appears as Berthold, one of the Baron’s sidekicks with variant superpowers (his is superspeed). Another has great hearing and the ability to blow tremendously powerful wind with his breath. Another is a sharpshooter and another is a strongman. Maybe one of the downsides is that these characters spend most of the time as semi-useless, with only the briefest of moments of highlighting their hidden strengths. The Baron himself is played by John Neville with a particular flair and charm truly befitting the character. We’ve also got a young and beautiful Uma Thurman as the goddess Venus (an apt role indeed).
The adventures take them to the moon, into the depths of Mt. Vesuvius, and swallowed by a giant sea serpent/fish, all while the aging Baron is pursued by the shrouded and skeletal image of “Death”, ever-waiting to snatch his essence away.
The film is far from flawless but indeed is perhaps as good as anything that Terry Gilliam has directed. I’m sure that there are those who would vaunt Time Bandits (1981) or the aforementioned Brazil as his masterpieces, but it’s clear to me that he is certainly a director who is worth considering among the most interesting and original living American directors (though it’s sometimes hard not to consider him English, what with his Monty Python affiliation). And really, I did enjoy it more than I imagined I would (even with the tiresome Robin Williams as King of the Moon sequence). I was tired of that 20 years ago. Still am.