The Adventures of Baron Munchausen [retro review]

“But things look black, business is slack, there’s no one on the rack but meeeee!”

The Scoop: 1988 PG, Directed by Terry Gilliam and starring John Neville, Eric Idle, Sarah Polley, Oliver Reed, and Uma Thurman.

Tagline: Adventure, Comedy, Romance. He was full of it.

Summary Capsule: So it’s like that weird uncle of yours getting drunk again at Christmas and telling his usual weird stories, except they’re true and he’s dragging you along on his “adventures”. Only this is much cooler than that would be.

Clare’s Rating: Up, up and away in my beautiful balloon.

Clare’s Review: The third part of a very unofficial trilogy by director (and ex-Monty Python mad genius illustrator) Terry Gilliam, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is the last leg of mankind’s interaction with fantasy and imagination. Time Bandits, a classic must-see kids movie, was adventure set in a child’s dreamscape, while Brazil, a much darker and more subversive film, showed how middle-aged adults use fantasy to alleviate the oppression and horror of modern (er, post-modern) living.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is about an old adventurer, living in a time of quasi-fascist reason, whose past forays to fantastic places are considered utterly absurd. As is the theme in all three films, Munchausen’s insistence that all of his fantastic voyages are true is what saves a small town and Munchausen himself from utter ruin. Don’t worry, I haven’t given too much away.

Based on a popular European fairy tale, Gilliam puts a decidedly twisted twist into every increasingly bizarre turn in Munchausen’s unbelievable journey. It’s not a perfect film (it drags a bit toward the end), but it’s absolutely worth a look.

I happen to love Terry Gilliam’s aesthetic sensibility and this movie, while also extremely dense in story line and structure, is breathtaking to behold. Look especially for Robin Williams in an uncredited role as the King of the Moon, an extremely young, pre-Go Sarah Polly and Uma Thurman’s left breast in a very small cameo. If you like the wacky pacing of Monty Python films or enjoy truly twisted fairy tales then this is the movie for you. A truly under-rated gem.

Heather’s Rating: I can’t be bothered. It’s Wednesday.

Heather’s Review: I can’t believe I’ve never seen this before. How many times has that been said in a review, I wonder? Regardless, I mean it one hundred percent. This movie is the best surprise I’ve had in a while.

A friend of my husband’s and mine came over Sunday to store some stuff at our house for a couple of months. Once everything was brought in he plopped down a huge case of DVDs and told me we could keep that at the house, too, knowing how much I love movies. I feel like I won the lottery. Our friend said something along the lines of “I have the Adventures of Baron Munchausen in there, too!” Without much enthusiasm I told him I’d heard of that before, but never seen it. He gasped and began furiously flipping through his DVD case to find it. “You have to see it!” He cried. “Mandatory!” Thus began my forced watching and unforced loving of this film.

As the first scene began I thought “Oh great. He has me watching some depressing period piece. I’m not in the mood for Les Miserables today.” Then we see a girl mark out “son” on one of the many town announcements and write in “daughter”. As her face turns toward the camera the music gets a hit of whimsy and she smiles. So then I thought “Well then this is like Amadeus. Goofy and enjoyable, but still going to be depressing overall. ” I was so wrong. This movie, in fact, was a monster unlike any I could have imagined.

The story begins with a play that pays tribute to the amazing adventures of Baron Munchausen. In the middle of it all a crotchety old man comes storming in (as crotchety old men are wont to do) . Waving his arms about and shouting that he is the real Baron he heads up onto the stage, upsetting everyone and eventually using his sword on a poor, defenseless stage nose. The curtain falls and eventually the geriatric adventurer comes out in full Baron regalia to tell the audience how it all really went down. I won’t go too far into detail. I don’t want to spoil this movie for you. You have to see this play out to fully appreciate it. But suffice it to say this is not your typical “someone interrupts the present to tell us about the past” movie. The past and the present and fantasy and fiction become so intertwined that I promise you you’ll be guessing throughout the movie. It’s like Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Princess Bride had an illegitimate child nursed by The Labyrinth.

The camerawork in this film is amazing. It plays with your mind and emotions, causing you to think and feel something one second and then turning it all upside down the next. I was particularly impressed by the camera work that seamlessly brought the movie from the stage where Baron was telling his tale to the sultan’s palace in Constantinople. The scenery is gorgeous. Imaginative and beautiful. You’ll fall in love with fairy tales again.

Speaking of the Constantinople scene, I cannot ever laugh as hard as I did at seeing Baron’s face while the sultan played “The Torturer’s Apprentice” on an organ. Made of humans. Having knives and anvils attack them at every key he played. The camera just holds on his face and I can’t help but laugh out loud every time.

Speaking of John Neville, who plays Baron, he did a spot-on job a the Baron. The whole cast is fantastic, actually. You have John Neville, Eric Idle, Jonathon Pryce, Oliver Reed (who was also amazing), Uma Thurman…I could go on but you get my point. This was a very good cast. Uma Thurman alone is going to keep this movie alive on youtube. At least for the 60 or so seconds that she’s sans clothing. There! Got all the males to watch this. Half my job is done.

Save for the first time Sally destroys Death, the special effects are great. So impressive that I don’t have to follow that last sentence with “for the time”. Some other reviewers *cough*who use thumbs as ratings*cough* say the effects overshadow the film. They do not! In a fantasy the intention is to make what isn’t real seem real by way of the effects. Be it effects told in excruciating detail by a talented storyteller or effects created through a well talented movie effects team, the result is the same. Your imagination gets to be told/shown what’s going on while trying to fill in the rest.

I love the juxtaposition of fantasy and reality. Probably my favorite example is when Berthold is chasing down a speeding bullet and tries to grab it. Of course when he tries to grab it he yelps and lets go immediately, it being really darned hot as a speeding bullet would be. So we’re to believe a man can catch up with a bullet but not be able to hold it. It’s just the kind of thing that really surprises a person watching this movie. You never know what part of reality they’ll twist and what will stay the same.

For any cult fan this movie is an absolute have-to-see. If you’re like me then a lot of times the quotes can sell you on a movie. And this movie’s loaded chock-full of stuff to relentlessly spout out in any social occasion.

I had the same look on my face when I saw Epic Movie.

Intermission!

  • Robin Williams plays the King of the Moon. In the credits he is listed as “Ray DiTutto”. This is the English transliteration of the Italian phrase “Re di Tutto,” which means “King of Everything,” which was how the King of the Moon introduces himself to the Baron.
  • The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is widely held up as being one of the biggest box office flops of all time. A tortuously complicated and often delayed shoot made the production costs hover near $45 million. Upon its release in the US Munchausen made only $8 million.
  • Baron forms an informal trilogy with director Terry Gilliam’s previous films, Time Bandits and Brazil. The three movies represent the three stages of Man (youth, middle age, and elderly) and the impact of imagination on each.

Groovy Quotes

Sally confronting her father about the playbill: So why does it say Henry salt and son? I’m your daughter.
Henry: I knew I should never have taught you to read.

Baron to the three ladies: You so remind me of Catherine the Great, empress of all the Russias, whose hand in marriage I once had the honor to decline.                                                                                                                                                                  Desmond: They all remind you?
Baron: Yes, why not!? Some bits here, some bits there.

Sultan: We begin with the arrival of the eunuch’s chorus, who sing ‘Cut Off In My Prime’

King of the Moon: No, let me go! I’ve got tides to regulate! Comets to direct! I don’t have time for flatulence and orgasms! I hate that face you make me make!

Baron to the sleepy guards: “Gentleman, don’t you think it would be a good idea to silence those enemy cannons?”
Sleepy Guard: No, sir.
Baron: No?
Sleepy Guard: It’s Wednesday.

Baron: I didn’t fly miles. It was more like a mile and a half. And I didn’t precisely fly. I merely held on to a mortar shell in the first instance and then a canonball on the way back.

Baron: Reality, sir, is lies and balderdash! And I’m delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever!

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8 Comments

  1. Wow…
    “Monty python and the holy grail” and “the princess bride” bumping uglies and having an illegitimate kid that gets nursed by “Labyrinth”…..

    That is a ridiculous array of disturbing imagery.

    “dude… don’t be that guy”

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