“Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash, and I’m delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever.”
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is an infamous film for all of the wrong reasons. The film was a colossal bomb, though that was hardly Terry Gilliam’s fault. A producer with a weak understanding of the ins and outs of film production, coupled with calamity after calamity, sent the budget spiraling out of control, from an initial $24 million to an astounding (for 1989) $34 million—or more, depending on your source. The completion bond agency even went so far as to shut down the production, leaving Gilliam scrambling to secure funding and support to finish. The movie was (obviously) finished, but Gilliam was unable to fully realize his vision. Adding insult to injury, the leadership at Columbia Pictures changed during filming; the new regime abandoned the film, releasing it to only a handful of theaters.
So, as the ladies ask in the theatrical production that frames the film, “What will become of the Baron?”
Determining the facts in this particular case is akin to capturing a summer breeze; the film’s perspective moves around quite a bit, so that the very concept of “reality” becomes destabilized. But here is what appears to be happening:
It is The Age of Reason. Wednesday. The city is under siege by the Sultan. Attempting to forget their troubles and fears, the populace is packed into a theater, watching a traveling company enact The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen. In the middle of the performance, an elderly man cries out in protest, totters down the aisle and onto the stage, and claims that the play is a travesty; he claims to be the real Baron Munchausen (John Neville, The X Files: Fight the Future), and he’s here to stop the players from spreading any more lies. Furthermore, he’s the only one who can stop the war with the Sultan—because he’s the one who started it. As the baron spins his tale, the lines between tale and truth, play and reality—even life and death—begin to blur, as he travels to the Moon, dances with a goddess, and is swallowed by a sea monster in his quest to save the besieged town. When the dust has finally settled and the Baron has ridden off into the sunset, no one is quite sure what has happened—including the viewing audience.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is sometimes labeled as the conclusion of Gilliam’s unofficial “Dream Trilogy”: Time Bandits explores the dreams and fantasies of children, Brazil looks at the dreams and fantasies of adulthood, and Munchausen supposedly examines the dreams of the elderly. That’s a nice, neat way of categorizing, I suppose; the only problem is whether the film actually supports such an interpretation. It’s more accurate to say that the film demonstrates the importance of imagination to society as a whole. In an age (of reason) in which everything is reduced to logic and calculation, the city has forgotten the liberating, rejuvenating power of imagination. But now, in their hour of darkest need, the avatar of imagination has returned to show them the way.
That’s the reason the character of Sally (Sarah Polley, The Sweet Hereafter) is so important. Thematically, her relationship with the Baron is not unlike that between Charlie and Willie Wonka. The adults around her have long ago renounced their imaginations in favor of reason; even her father, who runs the touring theater company, is more interested in his testimonials than the magic of the theater—the testimonials are tangible proof of the quality of his company. When reason is king, even bravery represents a threat, as is shown when a nameless soldier (Sting, Dune) is executed for an astounding act of heroism. By traveling with the Baron, Sally learns not only the power of imagination, but also that to wield that power, you must embrace the magic completely—which is why the Baron doesn’t seem worried about what is happening to the city during his extended quest. Just as Sally’s faith in the Baron saves him from Death, it is only by saving Sally, literally and figuratively, that the Baron can restore imagination and wonder to a world that has become as sterile and dangerous as the nightmarish dystopia of Brazil.
Terry Gilliam films are awash with style, and this one is certainly no exception. Production Designer Dante Ferretti teams with Gilliam to create both the rapturous and the terrifying:
When I first saw the movie years ago, Gilliam’s image of Death scared the crap out of me. Almost twenty years later, it still scares the crap out of me. That’s part of Gilliam’s genius; he understands imagery and symbolism well enough that the power of his imagery can overcome weaknesses in the narrative.
Acting is solid, if not stellar, but apart from the lead, this really isn’t an actor’s movie. John Neville positively (and literally, on occasion) glistens as Baron Munchausen, easily shifting between ages (he portrays the Baron in his thirties, his fifties, and his eighties). Sarah Polley handles the role of Sally without becoming too cute or too precocious—no mean feat. Jonathan Pryce embodies the rule of reason as the Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson, whose only concern is that everything, including the war, remains on schedule. There are a couple of notable cameos: Oliver Reed goes well over the top as Vulcan, yet it somehow works. Robin Williams does his usual schtick as the King of the Moon—but again, in the context of a film in which everything else is over the top, it works. A nineteen-year-old Uma Thurman (Pulp Fiction) as Venus simply reeks of typecasting. The sequence with Vulcan (Oliver Reed, Gladiator) and Venus is pure, surreal magic. When Vulcan calls Venus a floozy and she shrieks “Floozy?!?! Floozy!?!?,” the way Thurman’s voice cracks is priceless; the sublime image of desire is suddenly transformed into a fishwife.
Video is a decidedly mixed bag. On the one hand, colors are incredibly crisp and vivid; Gilliam used an intense palette in much of the film, and it must have taken some work to prevent bleeding. On the other hand, there’s a ridiculous amount of grain, particularly on special effects shots. The backdrop is clearly visible in one of the water tank scenes, but in the context of the film, you can make a case that it’s deliberate. The remixed 5.1 sound is clear, with not a lot of static or hiss, but the mix could do with a bit more punch in the lower registers (Actually, that may just be a personal preference than a problem with the DVD. I got out the soundtrack, and it has the same problem; Michael Kamen’s score, while entrancing, favors the higher-pitched instruments, perhaps going for a dissociated, airy sound.
Sony has collected an excellent set of extras for the release. The new making-of featurette, “The Madness and Misadventures of Munchausen,” does a good job of chronicling the film’s oh-so-troubled production. It features interviews with all the principal cast members, Gilliam, and producer Thomas Schühly, who seems to be the true culprit in the film’s production nightmare. He seems convinced that had everyone simply listened to him, everything would have turned out OK, even though it was listening to him in the first place that resulted in many of the production’s major miscues. The commentary track features Gilliam and writer/co-star (Adolphus) Charles McKeown. It rambles a bit, but they’re both clearly having fun, and they offer a fair amount of information on the production along the way, so it’s OK. The deleted scenes are nothing special, but the storyboards for some deleted scenes are interesting. Even the storyboards for some scenes that were not even filmed are shown, with Gilliam and McKeown narrating. The final storyboard scene is particularly amazing, and it is a tragedy that Gilliam never got a chance to film it.
The ending is somewhat abrupt; at this point even Gilliam isn’t even sure how he initially intended to end the film before the accountants stepped in. It almost kinda sorta possibly works, though there’s an initial tendency to tap the side of your head and go back a few scenes to see if you missed something. But it is what it is. Gilliam is not for everyone’s tastes, even in a more mainstream work like 12 Monkeys. He tends to overload his visuals, making the audience work a little harder to stay on track. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but particularly an age in which attention spans last little longer than a music video or YouTube clip, audiences have to work a little harder to watch a Gilliam film.
The more I think of it, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a more positive spin on the ideas Gilliam developed in Brazil. In that film, dreams, even insanity, were presented as the only true means of escaping a terrifying reality. Munchausen, on the other hand, posits dreams and imagination not as a means of escape, but as a viable means of change.
Terry Gilliam and the Baron are thanked for reminding us how imagination can transform a weary world. Sony Pictures, by virtue of providing solid extras and a pretty decent print, are acquitted with the thanks of the court.