STUDIO: Sony Pictures
RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes
• Director’s Commentary
• 3-part behind-the-scenes feature
• Deleted scenes
It’s a re-release of Terry Gilliam’s famous mind/budget blowing fantasy fiasco.
Thanks to the miracles of cryogenics and gravity discs, audiences
of the future will be able to witness the comedy stylings of Robin Williams.
Cast: John Neville, Eric Idle, Sarah Polley, Charles McKeown, Winston Dennis, Jack Purvis, Oliver Reed, Uma Thurman, Robin Williams, Jonathan Pryce
Director: Terry Gilliam
Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno
Set in an unnamed European country in the late 18th century, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen stars John Neville as the swashbuckling, physics-defying, charismatic Munchausen as he attempts to rescue a besieged city from an army of invading Turks. His entourage includes the world’s fastest man (Idle), the world’s strongest man (Dennis), the world’s most awesome dwarf (Purvis), the world’s most accurate sharpshooter(McKeown), and, uh, the world’s… Polley-est girl (Sarah Polley).
In search of his lost comrades, the aging Baron and the young girl evade a repressive, tyrannical politician (Pryce), escaping to exotic locales such as The Moon, A Volcano, and Fish Innards. After messing around with Robin William’s head and an always great, always wolfish Oliver Reed, the Baron is reunited with his friends- but can they make it back in time to lift the siege? And even if they do, will they be able to do anything about it, or are they just too old?
Against all expectations, exposure to a face-eating virus actually
helped Mia Farrow’s career, especially when her roles required
lots of shrieking.
Sea Monsters. Headless lunar royalty. Shrieking, red-headed death skeletons. And midgets. Plenty of midgets.
No, it’s not another awful Cirque du Soleil thing- it’s the uneven but somehow brilliant The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Terry Gilliam’s epic, infamous historical fantasy. While Munchausen isn’t as smart as Brazil or as fun and creative as Time Bandits, it’s still great fantasy, and is doubly great when juxtaposed against the story of its tumultuous, seemingly doomed production.
In fact, the miracle of Munchausen is how so much of its plot mirrors the actual battle to get the film made. Munchausen‘s Baron is an illogical hero who wages war against the stifling shackles of reason; he gets more upset about someone getting the details of his “stories” wrong than about the cannons and siege engines at the city gates. Jonathan Pryce’s “champion of mediocrity” villain does his best to silence the Baron’s treasonous storytelling, but ultimately loses out when the people choose fantasy and creativity over bookkeeping and reason.
If you’re familiar with the behind the scenes story of Munchausen‘s development, then it’s easy to see eerie parallels between Gilliam and the Baron, as well as between Columbia head Dawn Steel and Pryce’s stuffy villain. After selling his idea to a then-friendly Columbia executive, a never ending sequence of budget woes, acts of god, and personnel problems began to plague Gilliam’s production. In what might seem like a mathematical impossibility, the production was already a week behind schedule during the first seven days. Problems with filming in Rome (which seemed like a great idea on paper, as tax incentives suggested that the film’s budget would be drastically reduced by shooting there), such as shady dealings with local officials and the obvious communication barriers, dug the production into a hole. Things didn’t improve when Dawn Steel brought her cool, objective administrative talents to Columbia’s executive office. As the new head of the studio, she saw Munchausen as little more than a fool’s errand. Under her reign, production was shut down several times, and much of the film was cut to match a more modest budget. According to the commentary, Gilliam still blames Steel for Munchausen‘s problems, but to be fair to her, Gilliam and company did manage to double the original budget of 24 million.
Salvidor Dali’s “Open Waterobics” series of VHS tapes
(which claimed countless lives) was the death knell for the aerobics fad.
But did the film itself survive the production?
Yes, but with a few caveats.
Much like in the narrative, John Neville’s Baron saves the film. His charismatic, witty, enormously fun Baron proves that older guys can still play compelling action heroes without constantly referencing their age. Sarah Polley works a good deal of magic as well as the plucky Sally Salt, although she gets so much goodwill because of her spectacular set of teeth. Those adorable, half-missing chicklets should have been credited individually. Eric Idle can’t help but be amusing, and the late Oliver Reed steals the second act as Vulcan, the war-mongering steel miller. Steel miller? Dawn Steel? The parallels continue!
The best thing about Munchausen, though, is its art design. Munchausen feels more like a live action python cartoon than any of Gilliam’s other works, and that’s hardly and indictment. Airships float quietly between dreamlike clouds, only to plummet inexplicably to the surface of the moon. The fountains of Rome become a ballroom for floating dancers. The cavernous belly of a monster fish holds a shipwreck villa full of lost souls. The artwork here rivals any of Gilliam’s best work.
One of Oliver Reed’s peccadilloes was his infamous, violent,
white-hot hatred of midgets.
While the narrative is certainly less heady than the rest of Gilliam’s oeuvre, Munchausen is first and foremost a child’s fantasy. That’s not saying it’s a children’s movie. While kids will be able to appreciate the camaraderie between the colorful characters and their high adventures, there’s plenty of subtext, from the obvious “reason versus imagination” conflict between Baron and his detractors, to a thoughtful commentary on aging and mortality. Read literally, Munchausen makes little sense, but its status as one of the most expensive cinematic non-sequiturs ever made just makes it that much more charming.
It’s far from a masterpiece, though, as there are plenty of missteps throughout the film. Its opening act is a cluttered mess. Set in an open theater during a ramshackle production of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the first act has a palpable, claustrophobic, unsustainable frenzy about it, and nearly derails the film before it begins. That our main characters don’t even get out of this theater for the film’s first forty minutes was a bad play by Gilliam, and although there’s a wonderful flashback sequence to break up the monotony, it’s a great relief when the first act ends. It feels like standing in line at a busy Italian deli where everyone’s yelling, but for far too long.
Perhaps worse is Robin Williams’ unfortunate, uncredited role as the king of the moon. It’s an embarrassing, out of place, and over the top cameo that yanks the audience out of the film. Instead of watching high fantasy, we’re instead watching a horrible, grating comedy routine by the hairy king of spastic impressions. I like what Williams did in The Fisher King, but he’s totally unbearable in this. Munchausen‘s commentary reveals that Williams was thrust upon Gilliam in an attempt to make the film more bankable.
In the end, though, Munchausen succeeds despite its flaws. While it was an epic flop in theaters, Gilliam insists that most fans cite Munchausen as their favorite of his films, which hopefully makes him feel at least a little vindicated, as Munchausen‘s great visual style makes it a minor fantasy classic.
It’s a very well populated release, with an epic, 3-part making-of documentary, deleted scenes, storyboards, and a great commentary track with Gilliam and writer/actor/pal McKeown. The jewel of the special features is the making-of documentary, which stands as one of the best making-of documentaries I’ve ever seen. It chronicles the fiasco from beginning to end, giving equal time to competing viewpoints on the details of the debacle. It turns out that Eric Idle’s experience on Munchausen was so horrendous that he gave up film acting entirely. Ironically, the making-of documentary was filmed in Rome to save on costs, and came in $12 million over budget. It nearly sunk Sony Pictures and ended Gilliam’s career, and will be featured in the direct-to-DVD documentary Unmaking Of: The story of the making of The Making of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Kidding about that, of course, but part of me wishes I wasn’t.
The audio is a fantastically acceptable Dolby 3/2.1, and the video looks superb, even for standard def.
I can’t believe I actually get to say this about DVD packaging, but the box art for Munchausen is great! The colors and artwork match the light fantasy of Munchausen‘s unbelievable stories perfectly.
Late into Munchausen’s production, Columbia Exec Dawn Steel toyed with
other ways of dealing with the film’s budget problems.