July 15, 2009

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
Grade: 66/100

Director: Terry Gilliam
Stars: John Neville, Eric Idle, Sarah Polley

What it's about. Set in the late 1700s. A Christian European town headed by pompous nincompoop Jonathan Pryce is besieged by a Muslim army led by sultan Peter Jeffrey. Within the regularly bombarded town, a theater company continues with a play based upon the tall tales of Baron Munchausen. The play is interrupted by the real Baron Munchausen (John Neville), who complains that they have gotten everything wrong.

Nobody believes the presumed imposter except a nine-year old Sarah Polley, future comely star of The Sweet Hereafter and other indie efforts. Polley encourages Munchausen to save the endangered town. He agrees, and leaves with Polley via a contrived hot air balloon to round up his former servants, all of whom have an amazing ability. Berthold (Eric Idle) can run really fast, Albrecht (Winston Dennis) is a strongman, Gustavus (Jack Purvis) can blow your house down, and Adolphus (Charles McKeown) is a crack shot.

He finds his servants in such unlikely places as the moon, a volcanic underworld, and the belly of a sea monster. At the moon he meets madcap Robin Williams, and in the underworld he dances with Venus (Uma Thurman), which makes her husband Vulcan (Oliver Reed) rage with jealousy.

How others will see it. To the degree that it is remembered at all, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is noted for losing a mountain of money. It was a costly production, and Columbia barely promoted the film. Nevertheless, it generally received good reviews, and it did garner four Academy Award nominations, not bad since the Golden Globes completely ignored it.

As it is a fantasy, and young Sarah Polley has the second biggest role, it is unsurprising that young audiences like the film best. But it is hardly a children's movie, with its war violence, premonitions of death and beheading, a torture concerto, and sexual language (e.g., between Robin Williams and Valentina Cortese).

The final third of the movie lags noticeably, John Neville eventually wears out his welcome, and one wonders why the Baron's magic white horse Bucephalus has withstood time so much better than his aged servants. But most viewers will appreciate the fanciful plot, and may even take notice of the moral: the eldery have something to offer, after all.

How I felt about it. There really was a Baron Munchaüsen, a German who served as a lieutenant in the Russian army in campaigns against the Ottoman Empire. After his retirement from the military, he told stories about his brilliant career that caught the fancy of European publishers. Books began emerging even before Munchausen's death, embellished with folklore and the imagination of Western ghostwriters.

Key to Munchausen's success is confidence, in both himself and his servants. He really believes that he can outwit the sultan, dance with Aphrodite, and visit the moon whenever it so pleases him. But he's aged now, and can use encouragement from an innocent child (Polley) who still sees his potential. There's also something of a role reversal here, with Polley as the responsible party imploring the easily distracted baron to focus on his mission to save the beseiged town.