The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), or Terry Gilliam’s Fever Dream

10 01 2009

And it looked so normal from the poster...

And it looked so normal from the poster...

Today’s film is another flop in the tradition of last week’s Ishtar. But here’s the catch; this movie is actually great! But before we get moving, a fair warning to all of you. If any of you feel that fantasy is too “fake” for you, if you feel you need some “realism” from your movies for some reason, please go somewhere else. This is by no means the movie for you. This might even be the antithesis for all you hold dear in art, considering just how off the wall it is. So I recommend coming back later, when I review a movie that is not so insane. But to all those who think that fantasy is too fake to hold your interst, a single caveat. Go back and watch a few movies you hold dear: perhaps the Godfather movies, Donnie Brasco, or Platoon. Watch them again and tell me if you speak so dramatically in real life, if you block yourself perfectly in front of windows to give overlong monologues in your everyday world. Movies are always fake, friends. They’re all fake. Some are just more fantastic than others.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was a screenplay loosely adapted from”The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen”, a book of tall tales by Rudolf Erich Raspe, which in itself was loosely based on the adventures or real-life explorer Karl Friedrich von Munchausen. It’s all very loose. Basically, in some unnamed Western European city during the end of the 18’th century, a Turkish sultan wages war in the streets. During the ceaseless raids, a play goes on in the night that tells this bizarre story about Baron von Munchausen, a wacky adventurer who goes on nonsensical quests in search of who-knows. Midway through the play, an old codger comes out of the audience claiming to be the Baron himself, and also claims that he started the skirmish between the town and the Turkish sultan. Everyone doubts him but the daughter of one of the actors. As the siege worsens, the theater begins to crumble, people leave in panic, and the old codger, who just so happens to be the real Baron, collapses. The girl who believes he is who he says he is pulls him from the rubble, and together they begin a quest to end the skirmish between the city and the sultan.

This movie is out there, which becomes obvious when you learn the director is Terry Gilliam. There are trips to the moon, giant monster whales, little people with super-breath, three-headed mechanical beasts, and other theatrical oddities. But it is so entertaining, you’ll forget just how strange it is. An all-star cast carries the delightful strangeness from scene to scene. Actors like Robin Williams, Uma Thurman, and Eric Idle really sell you this world, and if you let your imagination run loose, you’ll buy every second of it.

I have to mention the special effects. The 80’s were an amazing time for props, puppets, animatronics that really speak of a time before computer-generated graphics were all the rage. All the set pieces are perfection, from lunar landscapes, to the inside of a volcano, to the inside of a whale; it’s fanciful and fun. It’s interesting to watch how things were done on a technical level before you could just render a computer-animated background of wherever the hell you wanted to go.

This movie was called a tremendous flop in its day. It only squeezed out about $8 million from a $40 million budget. Because of this, many of the reviews of the day were negative, decrying the decadence of Hollywood and how not turning a profit was proof that Terry Gilliam had gone too far into his madness to create challenging and profitable features. But looking back at those reviews, many people said very few words about the movie itself. And it shows, because solely on the film’s merits and not its box-office receipts, the movie is great and the few respectable critics out there who saw the film without bias (notably Roger Ebert) corroborated its success. It just goes to show you that not everything you read or see in the media is justified (just everything in this blog :-))

I am leaving this review painfully short, I know, but this is a movie that has to be experienced to be appreciated. Go watch this if you have a penchant for the fantastical. It’s exciting, it’s challenging on its own terms, and I had a good time viewing it. I give The Adventures of Baron Munchausen 8 giant monster whales out of 10!

See you next time, where we will have our first Night Out feature! Until then!!!

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