#7 in my Ranking of the Terry Gilliam films.
This feels like a step back from the brilliance of Brazil. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is still an entertaining and engaging fantasy, but it’s more unfocused to the overall package’s detriment. This is also Terry Gilliam at his most extravagant both visually and narratively, chasing every image in his head and every possible detour. That take certainly has its charms, and the movie’s eagerness to simply entertain is very winning for an audience. I just wish there was a bit more narrative control.
At the heart of every Gilliam film is this war between fantasy and reality with a dreamer at its center being pushed down by a system that abhors dreamers. In this case, it’s the eponymous Baron Munchausen up against the city government that’s up against an invasion of Turks. The city is represented by The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson, played wonderfully by Jonathan Pryce, and the Turks are represented by the Sultan. The Baron claims to be in the middle of the two, having been the cause of the outbreak of the war. He shows up to a theater production of his famous adventures, old and ragged, offended at the liberties of his life on display, and demands to tell his story.
What proceeds is a mix of fantasy and reality as the Baron tells of his wager with the Sultan that led to him clearing out the Sultan’s treasury with the help of his servants, one who can run faster than a bullet, another with superior hearing and the ability to blow strong wind from his mouth, another who can see for hundreds of miles and hit an apple with his gun from that distance, and the strongest man in the world. It was all done fairly, mind you. A simple wager of a superior wine retrieved from Austria within an hour where the strongest man in the world would be allowed to take as much from the treasury as he could carry. It’s just that the strongest man in the world could carry everything in the treasury.
When the action returns to the present, the city is still under attack, interrupting the story, and the Baron pairs up with the young daughter of the theater’s owner to attack the Turk and escape the city in pursuit of his long lost servants to help free the city from attack. It’s here that the movie gets looser and turns into more of a series of episodic events rather than pieces of an overarching story.
They go to the moon to find Berthold, the fastest man alive, imprisoned by the King of the Moon, and we’re with them for a while. It’s entertaining and Robin Williams is madcap fun as the King of the Moon, but it seems to only tangentially touch on the same thematic ground as the overall film. The King and Queen of the Moon can detach their heads from their bodies, allowing their heads to pursue esoteric matters while their bodies pursue the baser concerns of the flesh, but the body can only do so much on its own. So the body is in constant pursuit of the head to enhance their experiences. Just under the surface is the idea of reason being limited in its usefulness, but it’s incomplete. Still, it’s a fun little adventure.
The action then turns to a volcano where the Baron, Sally, and Berthold find Vulcan and his wife Venus. The Baron, smitten with Venus, woos her, and Venus, bored by her boorish husband, is happy to be wooed. It’s an amusing anecdote, but, again, it has little to do with the story around it. Uma Thurman is pretty and ethereal as Venus. Oliver Reed is grumpy and kind of hilarious as Vulcan. John Neville is at his effortlessly charming best as the Baron here. The only thing that really affects the overall story here is the plot-based action of picking up Albrecht, the strongest man in the world. Vulcan casts them out and they end up on the other side of the world, swallowed by a huge fish where they find Gustavus and Adolphus, the final two servants.
Together again, and after a bought of depression, the Baron leads his troupe back to the city where they have an exciting action scene tearing apart the Turks in entertaining fashion. It all falls away again though, when it’s revealed that we’re still just watching the Baron recount his tale to the audience in the theater before they march out and discover that the Turks really were defeated.
And that’s when the theme of the film really gets made clear. The representatives of the Age of Reason (caricatures of people who function purely on thought, much like the King of the Moon without his body) see no use for things like fantasy, but the Baron finds them essentially. They are our ultimate salvation from the reality of life. I suppose it might get a bit muddled with the idea that the Turks just left in the “real world” of the film.
All along, Gilliam presents his take on the Munchausen story with some of the most extravagant sets and costumes in fantasy filmmaking. It’s obvious that this movie was really expensive, reportedly the third most expensive film ever at the time of its making, and it’s so weird to think that all that money went to a man as crazed as Gilliam. For all of my issues with the movie’s structure and focus, I really do find each segment rather intoxicating both visually and from a small scale story point of view. Yes, the Vulcan scene doesn’t add too much to the overall story, but it’s a wonderful scene in its own right.
Visually resplendent with every dollar on the screen, energetically acted and assembled, and brightly colorful with some ideas, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen has its faults, but is a very entertaining overall package that shows Terry Gilliam at his most extravagant.