Movie Review: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

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During a siege, a colourful baron appears to a troop of actors and vows to save their city from war.

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Terry Gilliam, 1988

Okay, here we go with the plot. So there’s a group of actors in a war-torn city performing a play about this Baron Munchausen character (John Neville), see? Only it turns out the Baron is real. Crazy, right? So this mad Baron shows up in the middle of a performance to try to tell his side of the story, only he gets forced off stage and nearly dies at the hands of a puppet death angel thing. He’s saved by little Sally Salt (Sarah Polley), the company owner’s plucky daughter, who takes him back to the troop and the three lovely ladies working in it. He vows to them that he will get his wacky old gang back together (including a little person with huge ears, a very fast runner and a man who can see for miles) and save the town from its imminent doom, despite the highly Reasonable objections of The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce). Baron Munchausen tells the Age of Reason to stuff it and heads off on an adventure that takes him to the moon, Mars, and the belly of a monster in his quest to save the town.

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This doesn’t happen in the movie. Baron Munchausen doesn’t even look like that. Yet it seems so appropriate.

With a plot summary like that, you’d think this movie, no matter how strange, would at least be compelling. It isn’t. This film’s biggest crime is that it is boring. It’s a bit like Gilliam had one too many drinks, wrote down some cool ideas on a cocktail napkin, and every one of those first ideas made the cut. Sequences run for too long, the film is too episodic, and in spite of the kooky premise it’s never quite crazy enough that it becomes entertaining. Terry Gilliam is a really imaginative filmmaker, but I think someone needs to be looking over his shoulder to make sure everything tracks; that characters have narrative and arcs; that the film builds or leads somewhere. The introduction of Munchausen just about works, with him interrupting a fictionalised version of his tale to tell the “true” one, but this style is abandoned pretty quickly, which also kind of diminishes any “unreliable narrative” concept the film may or may not have going on.

The “getting the gang back together” plot is old-hat, and not done in any strong way. The late Robin Williams is put in a character that doesn’t quite match his shtick, making the scene where he appears on the moon one of the more memorable ones, but kind of icky and awkward too – especially considering there’s a little girl there. In fact, there’s a lot of innuendo for a movie with a kid sidekick. Young Sarah Polley does her level best with the precocious Sally, but it’s a bit of a strange part – Sally exists both as someone to lift Munchausen out of the doldrums and bring him back to Earth, a bizarre kind of role. After the moon scene, things become even more muddled and less interesting, without the liveliness of Robin Williams to boost the scenes. Performances are mostly kitschy and flat, with the exception of Jonathan Pryce’s villain, who drew my attention when he was on screen. Much is made of the beauty of a young Uma Thurman (the only person I knew was in this movie prior to seeing it), and she is pretty, but not much else in an unflattering role (or a couple of them). There were some good ideas somewhere in this film, but they weren’t held up by the genuine mind-blowing mind-fuckery of Gilliam’s better efforts.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen on IMDb

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