The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989)
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989)

Genre: Comedy and Fantasy Running Time: 2 hrs. 6 min.

Release Date: March 10th, 1989 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Terry Gilliam Actors: John Neville, Eric Idle, Sarah Polley, Oliver Reed, Charles McKeown, Winston Dennis, Jack Purvis, Valentina Cortese, Jonathan Pryce, Uma Thurman, Alison Steadman, Robin Williams

 


 

I

n the late 18th century (the Age of Reason), on a Wednesday, cannons roar and blood is spilled as the Turks lay waste to a declining European stronghold. In the crumbling Theatre Royal, the Henry Salt and Son Players put on the play “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” a festive, comical musical not performed in some 30 years. “We’re supposed to be professionals!” The show doesn’t go quite as they hoped, plagued by a few technical difficulties, but it isn’t until the second act when a mysterious interrupter shouts at the stage.

The man claims to be the real baron, who doesn’t wish to have his life story turned into a mockery. Hieronymus Karl Frederick Baron von Munchausen (John Neville) immediately accosts the lead showman (Bill Paterson) and insults a public servant, the Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce), before taking over the stage to narrate his biography in his own words. His story begins in the palace of the grand Sultan (Peter Jeffrey), where he makes a friendly wager: if the baron cannot produce the finest wine from the imperial cellar of Vienna with the blessing of the Empress within the hour, the Sultan will have him beheaded. Should Munchausen succeed, he may take as much treasure from the palace as the strongest man can carry. Of course, the baron has a most unusual assemblage of men at his disposal, including Berthold (Eric Idle), a runner whose speed on foot is so great, he must always wear lead irons chained to his ankles to keep him from defying gravity; Gus (Jack Purvis), a diminutive fellow whose hearing spans miles and who can blow down an entire forest with just one breath; Albrecht (Winston Dennis), a strongman who can lift hundreds of times his own body weight; and Adolphus (Charles McKeown), whose eyesight is so sharp, he can hit a bullseye from halfway around the world.

“We’re actors, not figments of your imagination!” Weaving contemporary strife through a fantastical retelling of the baron’s misadventures, the film blends reality and whimsy, not unlike “The Wizard of Oz,” especially as the actors in the play take on alternate roles in the “real” Munchausen chronicles. It’s edgier, however, though not without a playfulness that permeates even the darker moments, such as when a decapitated head winks at the woman whose arms it fell into, or when Death itself seems to come for the baron as the theater in which he recounts his tales continues to absorb heavy shelling. The comic interludes are evident, while the fantasy tends to shift in and out of the ongoing war – or perhaps only in the eyes of little Sally Salt (Sarah Polley). Is it all a daydream?

Initially, Sally is the target of constant disbelief, but the baron’s scatterbrained plan to leave the besieged city is very much realized as he builds a hot air balloon out of knickers (a whole town’s worth, despite only three actresses offering up their undergarments) to soar over the castle walls and into the heavens – with a destination of the moon. If he can reunite his old gang, they can save the city. “You do believe me, don’t you?” Sally is something of a compass for common sense (or a serious mind to clash with the frivolities, or an unyielding skeptic), reluctant to accept all the lunacy occurring around her. And when she stows away on Munchausen’s conveyance, she’s immersed in the cosmic chaos of an omnipotent, detached head that rules the universe (Robin Williams); a wicked criminal with no memory who is imprisoned on the moon; a three-headed robot bird monster; a free-fall from outer space all the way into a volcano on the Earth’s surface; Vulcan (Oliver Reed), a god whose army of cyclopes work tirelessly on an intercontinental nuclear missile prototype; a goddess (Uma Thurman) who floats about in a ballroom full of fountains; and many more.

“He won’t get far on hot air and fantasy!” Logic, reason, and science have taken over the world, which disappoints Munchausen to the point that he no longer wishes to exist in such a dismal place. When Death comes, he’s ready and willing to depart. But the message is clear: flights of fancy truly can be a salvation. Silliness can save the day. The visuals (including set designs, props, oversized puppets, and makeup – but not the green-screen/optical special effects) are always extraordinary, yet the humor intermittently sours; some of the concepts are stranger than they are amusing. And the pacing stretches things out a touch longer than it should. However, a few clever contrasts, editing tricks, creative transitions, and sequences at the end that reference the beginning give the film a certain quirkiness – a flavor for which writer/director Terry Gilliam is well known. It’s like a more family-friendly, comical, delirious take on Sinbad’s swashbuckling exploits; a fusion of mythology, fairy tales (particularly Grimms’), history, and legends, wherein rationality is the root of all evil and make-believe reigns supreme.

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10