THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN 4K Review: Deliriously, Exhaustingly Exhausting

Available from The Criterion Collection, director Terry Gilliam’s ambitious and pricey yarn stars Sarah Polley, Eric Idle, and John Neville.

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN 4K Review: Deliriously, Exhaustingly Exhausting

Described by its director, who is none other than the most successful debacle-prone filmmaker of recent times, Terry Gilliam, as an “outrageous, flamboyant, over-the-top movie”, 1989’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is nothing if not something to behold.  

It might just be the most unwieldy story about storytelling ever told.  Per the engaging unreliability of our lead, German writer Rudolf Erich Raspe’s wild-nosed fictionalized nobleman, Baron Munchausen, down can be up and up can be down and this can be that and that can be this… and often is.  At least, that’s according to Munchausen’s narrative of his marvelous travels and campaigns.  

Bigger than life and yet somehow shunned by it, Munchausen remains a charmer, a ladies’ man of myth if not always of taste.  He swings from boundless optimism to weary fatalism just as effortlessly as he charts a course to the moon and through the realm of the angry god Vulcan (Oliver Reed).  

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, then, is an origami cootie catcher of a movie, opening on one thing and closing on another and then back to the start again.  As doled out here, it is visual treat for anyone who might pay attention to its story of the Baron’s grand last hurrah.

And as dizzyingly fanciful as the good Baron’s depicted exploits are, the story behind the making of this gargantuan tall tale of a film is its own stuff of legend.  With this three-disc special release, Criterion has collected all of it into one place.  The resulting 4K UHD/Blu-ray edition is as deliriously, exhaustively exhausting as Gilliam’s movie.  

In a cockamamie time and place when the self-ascribed “Age of Reason” is also an age of unfettered warfare, it’s only fitting that a man of heroics and legend return to limelight.  That’s just what the aging adventurer Baron Munchausen (John Neville) chooses to do, literally commanding the stage away from a failing live adaptation of his fabled exploits.  Only, in this context, the flamboyant old man goes unrecognized and unbelieved before ultimately being forced off stage for being a disruptive old coot.  

But little Sally (a very young Sarah Polley), the neglected daughter of the invaded lead showman, believes him.  She recognizes this disruptor as the real deal -- a rare thing then and now -- understanding that he could in fact stop the war.  

But for Munchausen to do so, he must travel bang zoom to the moon, venture into the belly of a giant beast, ride a lobbed cannonball through the air, and steer clear of that pesky circling Grim Reaper.  Surviving these and other adventures that play out in the truest of Gilliam fashion is contingent on all manner of impossible chain-reactions, both fortunate and not so fortunate.  Gilliam himself seems to be doubling down about suppressed exceptionalism in our own crazy mixed-up world.  But I could be wrong.

Neville, cast for his great talent just as much as his acquired obscurity, is absolutely perfect as the Baron, a man tired of said world.  The question is, is the world really tired of the Baron?  

Even with a big dumb contrived war actively raging, people still pile into the theatre to heckle his adventures.  To them, the Baron is either made up or long gone… but still good for a jab.  Though his reputation as a cock and bull hustler may make one leery, he straightaway demonstrates his penchant for the fantastic, riding a launched mortar shell over an active battlefield and then immediately catching a cannonball back.  

It’s yet another splendid bit of practical effects trickery in this pre-CGI movie filled to the hat brim with ace miniature and matte work.  To be accurate, there is a smattering of rudimentary CGI during the moon landing segment, seen in the night sky as star charts and constellations come to life.  We learn this and much more in the many forthright bonus features that Criterion has compiled, created, and provided.

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Adorned in classy new artwork by Abigail Giuseppe, Criterion’s 4K release of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen splays out across three separate discs and a fold-out insert.  Disc one is the justified and detail-friendly 4K disc, a 4K UHD disc of the film presented in a new Dolby Vision HDR digital restoration approved by writer-director Terry Gilliam with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, to be exact.  

The other two discs are mere 1080p Blu-rays, one with the film and the other with all the special features.  That is, sans of course the audio commentary, which features Gilliam and his co-screenwriter, Charles McKeown, wherein they declare Munchausen “a broader statement”, declaring something about it being a “timeless film for all time”, or some such rubbish.  The movie is okay, fellas, but let’s not get carried away.  For all this, it must be said that The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is no masterwork.

The voluminous bevy of bonus features reinforce Gilliam’s own claims that Munchausen was “a film made in the spirit of the film.”  Also in its spirit, throughout said features we are witness to the aging and de-aging of Gilliam himself, not at all unlike Munchausen throughout Munchausen.  

From bemused middle-aged go-getter to oft-beleaguered old buzzard and several phases in between, Gilliam’s changing face reflects his own legacy.  The advent of the 2000s saw him literally shift from whimsical Munchausen to doomed Don Quixote (even when he finally did get that one made).  

No matter how far Gilliam’s gone (Time BanditsFear and Loathing in Las Vegas) or how hard he’s stumbled (The Brothers GrimmZero Theorem), he’s never outrun Monty Python and its ingrained impact of spam, dead parrots, and grails.  (Witness the rejected Python-esque marketing taglines, not remotely in the spirit of Munchausen, which, in one of several new little features, Gilliam sits at a table a chides).  There’s always another mandatory Python reunion or anniversary creeping up.  Breaking free and venturing forth ain’t what it used to be.  

Munchausen, for all its pomp, circumstance, and inflated knickers dirigible (yes), it’s a whole film of “getting the band back together”.  (The Baron is looking for his long-scattered superpowered pals so they can go back and put an end to the big dumb contrived war).  To what extent is even that a drag?  In a world where Gilliam’s well-established pessimism has won out, we need the Baron more than ever.  

Yet, like the sight-challenged executioner of the movie, the press of 1989 swang their ax all over the place in hopes of getting a cut of the “madman Gilliam” narrative.  Sure, the filmmaker lost his head a bit in production, but isn’t that better than letting it all go to one’s head?  Heck, losing one’s head is a favored motif!  

Exhibit A: The Baron, in a flashback, offers his own decapitation to the Sultan should he lose a wager.  Exhibit II: The King & Queen of the Moon (Robin Williams and Valentina Cortese) have detachable flying heads, which allow their bodies to engage in… other things, elsewhere.  Exhibit 3: Munchausen’s final attack is a burst of decapitations.  Slice!  Slice!  Slice!  Slice! Finally, I suppose, we could lump in the jugular-aimed accusations against Gilliam by his producer, and his counteraccusations against said producer.  Slice, slice!

To be sure, it’s a supernatural old world where the frequently severed heads can still be cheeky, and the Sultan’s harem is extra cheeky indeed.  But that last detail ought not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Gilliam’s Monty Python animation.  

Indeed, his Munchausen storyboards (many of which are included within the supplements) are full of big heads and bare bums.  Neither translates to that degree on screen, though the good Baron’s head has always been a bit too big for his shoulders…

So too, then, is the film.  A singular visual bit, for your consideration: Everyone knows that epic pull-back shot from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.  But they don’t know that Gilliam did it first.  It’s here, though with at least 75% fewer orcs, and entirely practical.  

No less than fellow Python and Munchausen costar Eric Idle proclaims that Gilliam is “a mad, modern Disney, having come from animation”, which is thoroughly true in that he insisted and pushed his grandiose vision into reality in spite of all financial and stress-laden peril.    Hmm, there’s a story here…

The Madness and Misadventures of Munchausen is a 72-minute documentary from 2008 on the making of the film.  The range of relevant interviewees is impressive, perhaps as comprehensive as one will ever see in regard to this sticky wicket of a movie.  As game as everyone seems to be to reflect on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, it seems there was still plenty of finger pointing to be done these 20 years later.  

Taking the high road in the documentary is actress Sarah Polley, by then a filmmaker in her own right.  It’s no secret that Polley has been open elsewhere about the trauma she took on from the often bombastic and even dangerous production.  Perhaps her full story didn’t make the cut but considering that all manner of other still-dirty laundry is aired, one suspects not.  

Gilliam himself makes dismissive reference more than once to Polley’s allegations of child endangerment elsewhere on the disc.  That doesn’t seem cool, Terry.  The Madness and Misadventures of Munchausen, however, in all its length and detail, is a must for a package such as this.   

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Additionally, critic and filmmaker David Cairns has contributed a new video essay about the history of the Baron Munchausen character.  This comes particularly recommended, as it combs through his various incarnations and permutations, first in literature, then in early film and animation, and then onward straightaway.  

Criterion devotees likely know that Gilliam is a huge admirer of Karel Zeman’s kinda-sorta mixed-media The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Baron Prášil), from 1962.  Lesser known, however, is Émile Cohl’s (the father of animation as an art form) 1913 silhouette cut-out animated adaptation, which maintains a “rambling, disjointed, one-damn-thing-after-another quality” of the original stories.  It’s too bad that Criterion couldn’t include this short.  In any case, someone needs to give Cohl his due on high definition, for crying out loud.  Like Munchausen, he too has unduly faded into obscurity.

Gilliam as an animator, on the other hand, has not.  Included elsewhere among the bonuses is Miracle of Flight(1974), a fun little animated short film by the filmmaker.  Created subsequently with his Monty Python salad days, it’s swell to have this early piece included, as it is not tonally dissimilar by any stretch.  

We also get a full-length episode of The South Bank Show from 1991 which is entirely devoted to profiling Gilliam.  In it, the director chats up what would be his next move, the Hollywood studio-fueled move into maturation, The Fisher King, which is also headed to 4K disc via Criterion.  He also tells of the Munchausen making-of drama and shows off some of the amazing large-scale puppet creatures and figurines created for the film.

Gilliam narrates compiled clips of behind-the-scenes footage of the film’s special effects, as well as several deleted scenes.  Screenwriter/actor McKeown joins him (in previously available supplemental material) to comedically intro storyboards for unfilmed scenes.  

Leaving no stone unturned, Gilliam returns in yet another series of bonus features, these newly shot, to mock unused marketing materials including a trailer and electronic-press-kit featurettes, as well as preview cards and advertising proposals.  No one gets out of this unscathed.  Want a fold-out essay on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen by critic and author Michael Koresky?  That is here, too.  Need English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing?  Criterion has you covered.

In the Quality Control Department, my 4K UHD disc glitched out momentarily midway through the duration.  It appears, though, that the issue is likely isolated to my copy.  (Did someone set it in slop?)  Mercifully, the pixeling freak-out happens during the interminable King of the Moon sequence, in which the giant disembodied floating head of uncredited Robin Williams hijacks the movie.  I should probably mention that it also features committed performances by Jack Purvis, Bill Paterson, Ray Cooper, Jonathan Pryce, and a youthful Uma Thurman, who is beautifully striking as the goddess Venus.

In sum, Criterion’s 4K package of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is, quite appropriately, as stuffed full of it (“it” being every last detail) as the main character himself.  The Munchausen of yore may be a man of lies, all lies!, but this edition might just be… the whole story?

The 4K edition is available from the official Criterion site

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

  • Terry Gilliam
  • Charles McKeown
  • Terry Gilliam
  • Gottfried August Bürger
  • John Neville
  • Eric Idle
  • Sarah Polley
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4KCriterionEric IdleJohn NevilleSarah PolleyTerry GilliamUma ThurmanCharles McKeownGottfried August BürgerAdventureComedyFantasy

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