Looking back at Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen

Andrew takes a look back at Terry Gilliam’s fourth film, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, an 80s box office disappointment that deserves reappraisal…

This was originally going to be a look back at The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, Terry Gilliam’s fourth film and the third in his Trilogy of the Imagination. Instead, it will partly be a rant interspersed with bouts of despair and misanthropy. For you see, Baron Munchausen was almost strangled at birth, and made $8 million at the US box office due to receiving only a very limited release.

It was reported to have cost around $40 million to make in an eventually rushed production, but this figure has been denied by those who worked on the movie, estimating it at $35 million instead. Columbia were in the process of being sold as the movie was made, and the new owners were not interested in putting money into the film or promoting it. What went on behind the scenes makes it all the more impressive that Baron Munchausen is as good as it is.

Visually, it’s sumptuous. By now this goes without saying in Gilliam films. It opens with a shot of what looks like a Mediterranean city lying in a bay, followed by a caption, ‘The Age of Reason’, then cuts to ornately decorated cannon blowing the hell out of said city. Practical effects. They look dangerous and they probably were.

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It’s a source of considerable ire to me that Gilliam’s films don’t find the audiences that, say, the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise achieve. Honestly, has anyone actually liked any of the last three films? Poorly written, over-complicated, and with comparatively mundane visuals, they even have the audacity to make you sit through ten minutes of The Day Today-esque orchestral bombast to see a dog sitting on a wicker chair.

Why would they bother recreating the fun romp of the first film when they can make more money than the GDP of Somalia by just throwing four CGI set pieces at the screen and telling Johnny Depp to gurn between them? There’s no point in reviewing blockbusters anymore, as despite near widespread criticism, Transformers 3 got bums on seats. A film needs to make money, but it doesn’t need to be good.

Don’t bother reviewing them, just put a picture of a happy, sad or angry baby under the title and we’ll get the idea, so more effort can be put into reviewing the films that people might not have seen without a glowing review.

Meanwhile, Sting is in Baron Munchausen. Remember when Sting used to turn up in films for tiny cameos? He hasn’t done that since Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels to my knowledge.

Baron Munchausen starts slowly, a play within a film, and takes its time in setting up its fantastical vignettes with a more detailed exploration of a city under siege, run by callous bureaucrats, reminiscent of the Napoleon section of Time Bandits. A travelling theatre company is putting on a production of Baron Munchausen, only for the real Baron to turn up and interrupt the performance, which is then interrupted further by the Turkish forces renewing their attack on the city.

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Sally (Sarah Polley), the daughter of the troupe leader, witnesses Death attempting to steal the Baron’s life, as it will throughout the film, and persuades the Baron that she wants to hear his stories. They set off on a series of adventures, trying to find the Baron’s old crew in order to return with reinforcements and end the siege.

The first of these is a trip to the moon to find Berthold (Eric Idle), who is a prisoner of the King of the Moon. This section is dominated by Robin Williams’ manic portrayal of the King, so whether you enjoy it depends entirely on whether you enjoy Robin Williams being manic. It does feature yet more gleefully weird visuals, and a very good gag involving a feather, but Williams’ relentless monologues feel at odds to the casual pacing of the rest of the film.

This is still comic in tone; the fantasy is Pythoneque, all broad-brush-strokes and smart silliness. There’s even a comedy northerner, although this time played by Oliver Reed, and technically he’s the Roman god of fire, Vulcan. Reed pitches his performance exactly right, at the same level of outlandishness as the rest of the cast. Everyone is doing silly things as if they are perfectly normal, whereas Williams’ shtick is not of that style.

Reed is probably the funniest guest performer (in a film full of them, some new to Gilliam’s repertoire, some returning) by channelling his physically imposing presence to create menace and absurdity in equal measure. Little movements of his eyes crack me up, and his decision to play the role with the type of northern accent that Michael Palin would usually be called upon to provide is one of those things that makes you laugh even if you don’t really get it or think about it.

Sally, Berthold and the Baron find the super-strong Albrecht working as a ‘midget servant’ to Vulcan, and the Baron falls in love with his wife Venus (Uma Thurman) who appears in homage to Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus – naked on a sea shell with her hair and hands strategically placed. For someone to appear nude in one of their first film roles knowing that Oliver Reed would be present takes some bravery.

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Vulcan ends up enraged, as Venus and the Baron dance a waltz in mid-air surrounded by fountains, just as the King of the Moon was angered by the Baron’s previous dalliance with his Queen. As with Jabberwocky, it’s impressively Grimm how much sexual content is present in a children’s movie, but its structure is more akin to Time Bandits, with several vignettes bookended by scenes in the same time period. It’s more slight, perhaps, than the latter, but the images and scenarios presented are fun, hyper-real and imaginative enough to entertain, and for once, Gilliam’s sleight of hand is not designed to depress the hell out of the viewer.

Returning to Pirates Of The Caribbean comparisons for a second, at no point in that franchise do any of the battles retain a sense of awe-inspiring chaos – certainly not compared to the final battle in Munchausen. However, studios and Gilliam don’t get on, so we were denied his Harry Potter movie, or his take on any other major franchise. His work lives on in influencing those who worked on the Potter franchise (Alfonso Cuaron, in particular, cited him as an influence), but you can’t see him now becoming involved in a franchise.

In some ways this is understandable, as Gilliam movies are costly and don’t always make money even when more widely released. At the end of the day, a balance sheet is going to count for more than the critical acclaim his films usually accrue. Interestingly, perhaps his safest fantasy movie, The Brothers Grimm, is one of his more profitable products, even more so than The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, with all the baggage that film brought with it.

That thin line between your tastes and popular culture, eh? Doesn’t it just keep on expanding all the bloody time?

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