Terry Gilliam’s fantastical adventure gets a visual update befitting its lavish spectacle
The creativity and chaos of Terry Gilliam’s mind, fueled the animated sequences and sketches of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, long before the man focused his madness into his own singular cinematic endeavors. Many have left their mark, from the dystopic impact of 12 Monkeys and Brazil, to emotional fare such as Tideland or The Fisher King, with some embracing the fantastic, to sear adventures such as Jabberwocky or Time Bandits into our impressionable minds. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen certainly has a swashbuckling quality, but like all his work, comes with a deeper, melancholic undercurrent, as reality seeps thought the fantasy.
Hieronymus Karl Friedrich, aka the infamous Baron von Munchausen. A legendary figure of the 18th Century, famed for his extravagant personal stories and bold faced lies. In Gilliam’s iteration, a wizened old man (played by John Neville) who stumbles across an amateur production that depicts his fantastical life. Irked at their lack of accuracy and grandeur, he begins to recant his own version of his tales, just as the city comes under attack from the Ottoman Empire. The lines between reality and imagination are blurred as the Baron’s latest adventure kicks off, as he takes a young girl named Sally Salt, (Sarah Polley) under his wing to prove to her the truth behind his legend, as he searches for some long lost friends in the hope of being able to save the city.
The epic scenes come with ornate surrounds. Filmed in Rome, the backdrop and talent of the region is leveraged to maximal effect. With baroque-inspired sets and stylings. Veering from a brutal city siege, to a trip to the moon, down into the belly of a sea monster, a foray into the domain of a God, and more. Madcap, chaotic sequences, engineered by Gilliam, but the absurdist swashbuckling is underpinned by more emotional themes. The Baron’s trip down memory lane comes with a sweeping sense of romanticism, along with a reflection on legacy. Something certainly more stark when contemplated in the shadow of your own mortality. Here, a literal angel of death (that admittedly haunted my dreams as a child) stalking the Baron, even as he finds himself invigorated by his new lease of adventure. It’s this darker undercurrent, ruminations on mortality and what we leave behind, that add more layers to the film. It’s all rather resonant at times, and Gilliam’s aspirations are clear, even if the execution is a little unfocused and sprawling at times.
John Neville delivers a nuanced performance, full of weight and weariness, giving way to a sparkling charm. In support, luminaries such as Eric Idle, Oliver Reed, Uma Thurman, Robin Williams, Jonathan Price, and more, each carving out a host of memorable characters. The diminutive Sarah Polley stands out as the young girl who accompanies the Baron. A child eager for stories and recognition, after being long met with disappointment from her father, who always wanted a boy. Polley brings an effortless charm to her role, as this innocent, bold, and curious child. Her performance becomes all the more remarkable once viewed in the light of the revelations of the past few years. Polley, now renowned for her work behind the camera, directing such features as Away from Her, Stories We Tell, and Women Talking, had her acting breakout role as an 8 year old in the film, and in recent years has chronicled her experiences on set. It all adds another dimension to the mania to what’s up on screen. The extra features in this release fail to address these more recent revelations, but they do touch on a plethora of other production difficulties, including budget constraints and overruns, animal wrangling on set, weather problems, and other elements that just add another layer of intrigue to a rewatch of a film driven by the madcap management and imagination of Terry Gilliam.
Criterion deliver an all new 4K transfer and restoration, one supervised by Terry Gilliam himself. Polley herself has even gone so far as to endorse Criterion’s celebration of it. The release showcases an image as vibrant as it is fantastical, with fluid and strongly represented image quality. Depth of color and detail impress, with the extra resolution and strong range of colors helping showcase the ornate production value. I will note, I had an issue with the disc at ~1hr 30 min, where it froze/stuttered, a phenomenon which was reproducible. I see nothing about this issue online, so it is likely a singular flaw. Extra features are:
- [4K and Blu-ray Disc]: Audio commentary featuring Gilliam and his co-screenwriter, Charles McKeown: An archival commentary, one that largely focuses on the overall production, and problems encountered during prep and execution of the shoot. With the information garnered about Polley’s experiences in the past few years, it’s a shame an updated commentary was not recorded
- Documentary on the making of the film: The Madness and Misadventures of “Munchausen”: Shot in 2008 by Constantine Nasr, it runs around around 70 minutes, with three parts entitled; “Flights of Fancy”, “Caught in the Act”, and “The Final Curtain”. The film pulls from multiple sources, and many interviews, to paint a detailed picture of the difficulties in getting the film off the ground, as well as the problems during production, balanced with some of the more creative choices and acts that kept things going
- New video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns about the history of the Baron Munchausen character: A great featurette that dives into the real person this character was based on, and how the Baron has been represented over the years in various forms of literature and other media
- Behind-the-scenes footage of the film’s special effects, narrated by Gilliam: A really nice ‘new’ addition to the film. Recorded in 2022, Gilliam provides narration of pre-viz work, models, storyboard sketches, and more
- Deleted scenes with commentary by Gilliam: 4 scenes, each 1–2 minutes in length, with accompanying commentary by Gilliam; 1. Gull and Turkey Leg/Alternate Opening, 2. Mutiny on Stage, 3. The Rules of Warfare, 4. Extended Fish Sequence
- Storyboards for unfilmed scenes, narrated by Gilliam and McKeown: Unfilmed or expanded/alternate version of scenes, 4 in total, with Introduction: “As We Once Dreamed it”, The Baron Saves Sally and The Baron and Bucephalus Charge the Turkish Gates, ranging from 1–5 minutes, but A Voyage to the Moon lasting over 20 min
- Original marketing materials including a trailer and electronic-press-kit featurettes, as well as preview cards and advertising proposals read by Gilliam
- Miracle of Flight (1974), an animated short film by Gilliam
- Episode of The South Bank Show from 1991 on Gilliam: Just under an hour, it’s a solid overview of Gilliam’s career, with contributions from some familiar, and some unfamiliar faces
- PLUS: An essay by critic and author Michael Koresky: In the enclosed liner leaflet, which also features stills from the film, and information on the transfer/restoration
- New cover by Abigail Giuseppe
The Bottom Line
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen delivers a sweeping spectacle, with grand visuals, memorable set pieces, grandiose storytelling, and a poignancy that comes from its meditations on life, death, and legacy. Criterion’s 4K treatment befits the visual feast on screen, and their extras, while not touching on the revelations of it’s (then) young lead, do much to shine a light on the production.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is available via Criterion now