RetroReviews #51: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

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JULY 9, 2013 SCREENING: BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1988)

Terry Gilliam’s fourth solo movie (and the third I’ve reviewed) is “The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen” (I really dread having to keep having to type out that title) and in my opinion, it’s where he really hit his stride. Baron (there, now I don’t have to type out the long title anymore!) is a wildly creative and hysterically funny fantasy adventure, and deserved far more attention than it originally received. It is a classic example of a film that got universally strong praise when it was released, and then preformed weakly at the box office (it has since become a cult classic).

What’s really cool about this movie is that it manages to maintain the classic style of Gilliam’s surreal humor, and also be a mainstream late 80’s adventure film. John Neville stars as the title character, and its clearly the best role of his career (and sadly perhaps the only one of note). One of his co-stars was a young child actress, who stole most the scenes she was in and left me wondering whatever happened to this talented young lady. After screening the movie, I looked up the cast list on IMDB only to discover that the Baron’s precious sidekick “Sally” was played by none other than Sarah Polley in her first film role! Apparently she had a “miserable” time making this movie, although it sure doesn’t show on screen. Even more interestingly, Polley is often described as looking like “a younger Uma Thurman” these days. This is perhaps the only film where both Uma Thurman and Sarah Polley appear, but they don’t play younger and older versions of the same character, or even mother and daughter – but completely different roles. While Polley is Sally, Thurman has a fun appearance as a beautiful mermaid character. Other famous stars have some memorable scenes in this, including an uncredited Robin Williams as “the King of the Moon” (whose head often detaches from his body and floats around the room) and Sting as a “Heroic officer”.

Aside from the wonderful cast ensemble though, the writing and directing in this movie really is terrific as well. The opening caption tells us that its “The Age of Reason” (e.g. the late 18th century), but shows how ironic that name for the time period is by juxtaposing it with images of unreasonable members of the Ottoman Empire battling across Europe. The film begins to cover a play about the life and exploits of the famous “Baron Munchhausen”, and is then interrupted by an elderly man claiming to be “the REAL Baron Munchhausen”, and the rest of the film is a flashback showing how events “really” occurred in his life.

Like his earlier (and later) films, much of what unfolds in Baron is zany non-scene But in the case of this movie, Gilliam seemed to be at the peak of his creative and outlandish prowess. The film has numerous fascinating characters and situations The special effects are also top notch – and seem fresh over 25 years later. Baron Munchhausen doesn’t have any type of deep meaningful effect that would give it a four star review, but it is both visually amazing on screen, as well intelligent , funny, and engaging on the written page. I find it to be rare when films accomplish both feats equally well, so I’d rank it along side great movies like Terminator 2 and The Thing, due to the fact they also excel equally well in both areas. The only difference is the latter two were much more successful commercially than Baron Munchhausen. Furthermore, I’ll add that the only thing that keeps me from keeping Baron Munchhausen three and a half stars is because it lacks any type of interesting message behind the film, or an idea that makes the audience question and debate the events of the story. Rather, the film exists purely as an entertaining escapist fantasy adventure story. In that category, it doesn’t disappoint one bit.

If you’ve never seen Baron Munchhausen, and you’re indifferent about watching the movie like I was, this is one film that you won’t regret taking a look at. Had the film done well at the box office, it would be considered a classic 80s movie now. Give it a shot, you’ll be glad you did.

*** out of ****

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