Ask any film fan what his favorite Terry Gilliam movie is, and you’re likely to get a series of startlingly dissimilar answers: Brazil, The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys, etc. But you almost never hear the director’s devotees championing The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Dismissed in a manner similar to his attempted 2005 blockbuster, The Brothers Grimm, many find his work on this elephantine period piece a confluence of excess and extremes that never fully comes together as a cohesive cinematic statement.
Such an assessment would be wrong. Perhaps the most breathlessly unique work the filmmaker has ever attempted, Gilliam’s visualization of the famed Germanic folk hero and his infamous gift of exaggeration remains a masterpiece, a completely flawed and intensely brilliant work of pure motion picture art. What was blasted back in 1988 as overdone and unexciting becomes the fantasy film equivalent of 2001: A Space Odyssey in light of a new, post-millennial reevaluation. While he can argue all he wants to about the inclusion of this film in his Ageism Trilogy (with Time Bandits representing youth and Brazil marking middle age), what Gilliam really accomplished here is the literal redefining of the time-honored boundaries of cinematic technique. Many recognizable spectacles wish they had this film’s scope.
During the presentation of a play by a traveling acting troop, a marauding Turkish army attacks a small Spanish town. From out of the audience, Hieronymus Karl Frederick Baron von Munchausen (John Neville) comes to the rescue, promising to gather up his trusty crew of heroes and save the day. His gang includes fastest man in the world Berthold (Eric Idle), super strong man Albretch (Winston Dennis), Adolphus, the greatest sharpshooter on the planet, and pint-sized Gustavus (Jack Purvis), a man with hurricane-producing lung power to spare. Setting off for the moon, the Baron inadvertently picks up young Sally (Sarah Polley). Committed to help save the city, she joins the notorious liar as he circumvents the globe looking for his former companions.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, with its sole reliance on physical effects, represents craftsmanship at a level superior to those being forged out of bitrates and motherboards. Carefully crafted works of high concept CGI long to be as inventive and imaginative. As a matter of fact, the vector-mapping individuals who call themselves artists should step aside and allow a true visionary to pass. Just as Kubrick did with his serious space opera, Gilliam gave the motion picture flight of fancy its brash, brazen benchmark.
But there is more to the movie than just gorgeous shots (Venus rising on the half shell, our characters falling into Vulcan’s volcanic lair) and remarkable ideas. Gilliam has always fancied himself a latter day Don Quixote, battling the worn out windmills of a film business based solely around reasonable returns and the bottom line. In the Baron himself, he finds a firm soul mate, the kind of blind-eyed dreamer whose age and appearance is literally affected by his amazing adventures (or lack thereof). Both mirror each other’s motives.
With its pitch perfect cast (including an amazing John Neville as the title character) and a delightful denseness that allows for multiple viewings — and meanings -The Adventures of Baron Munchausen stands as the moment when Terry Gilliam announced his importance as filmmaker to the rest of the world. This blithe and joyful journey into a world of unadulterated resourcefulness never fails to entertain or enthrall. If greatness was determined on talent alone, all of Gilliam’s movies would be extraordinary. But there is something about this film that transcends an easy classification. And that’s a true sign of long term aesthetic excellence.
The new 20th Anniversary DVD includes commentary from Gilliam and co-writer Charles McKeown, an extensive making-of documentary, storyboards, and deleted scenes.