This lavishly over-the-top and notoriously expensive oddity is essentially a compilation of Monty Python gags and storybook adventure. That visionary filmmaker, Terry Gilliam, grabs viewers by the lapels and drags them through one fantasia after another, from the palace of a Turkish sultan (all swimming pools, voluptuous belly dancers, and a scimitar-wielding executioner with both eyes sewn shut) to inside the belly of a sea monster and even the surface of the moon (where the moon king and queen have intellectual heads that separate from their lusty bodies). It’s as ornate as a toy maker’s workshop, but dizzying in its eagerness to put it all on display, and as such one can easily lose a sense of navigating this forest by dwelling on the minutiae of its trees. The Baron (John Neville) may be the closest Gilliam will ever come to representing his essence on-screen, until he makes his as yet unfinished Don Quixote project. This romantic visionary surrounds himself with a merry band of unusual accomplices (including the fastest man alive, the strongest man alive, a dwarf with an all-powerful lung capacity, etc.) and goes on a series of quests. His Jiminy Cricket is the little girl Sally Salt (Sarah Polley, wonderfully anchoring the film with her no-nonsense child’s clarity, and reminding us that Gilliam is as great a director of child actors as Spielberg and Truffaut), and she tries to prevent him from going off on tangential quests when her European town is being blown apart by war. He promised her he’d save the day, and she tries awfully hard to make him stick to his word. But Sally does not always succeed, and the film dawdles along with the Baron in a very uneven way. Making your way through the film is like eating an entire beautifully sculpted wedding cake, which is sweet and pretty to look at, but will also make you a little sick. And yet I’m glad this exhaustive film exists, because the patient viewer will also get sights, sounds, and nasty fairy-tale jokes that hit heights most films never attain.
The film gets an excellent transfer with beautiful color and excellent attention to detail. The audio quality is crystal clear, nicely balancing the raucous sound effects with clean dialogue and music.
"I'm reminded that this is such a violent film!" giggles Terry Gilliam in his feature-length commentary, with co-screenwriter Charles McKeown as his deadpan, hemming-and-hawing foil. "We blow things up all over the place! Whenever we couldn't figure out how to end a scene or wanted to avoid a punchline, we'd start a bombardment!" Mostly they keep to describing their creative intentions and artistic achievements, with anecdotes about the physical production and fun stories about the cast: Gilliam cast Polley because she was adorable, smart, and has incredible wide eyes, but also because she was missing quite a few teeth! Amidst all the magical flights of fantasy and raucous comedy, "the bad orthodontics brings us back to reality," Gilliam quips. But he's right that the ragtag and flimsy coexisting with the epic spectacle is a Gilliam touch.
There's thankfully very little repeated information on disc two, which contains a superb three-part documentary about the madcap production appropriately titled "The Madness and Misadventures of Munchausen." Most of the key creative and financial players are present and accounted for, as well as several cast members who speak about the film with refreshing candor. Eric Idle approves of Gilliam as a visionary and an artist for all time, but also says this was one of the worst experiences of his life. Producer Thomas Schuhly acknowledges himself as the token villain in the history of this film, going on to say that it's because he's German and they all thought it would be easy to peg it on a "Nazi." Terry Gilliam, as always, presents himself as a visionary Quixote up against the system, and has many vivid anecdotes about missing costumes, cutting 200 extras on the moon down to two actors (one of them being Robin Williams, replacing Sean Connery), and the way the chaotic making of a fantasy art film is directly tied in to the very themes he chose to explore. It seems you can't go wrong with a making-of for a Gilliam picture.
Storyboard sequences, drawn by Gilliam, are narrated by Gilliam and McKeown, who act out the screen directions, sound effects, and dialogue with tremendous gusto. In one of the sequences, the Baron saves little Sally from imminent death, and the other shows the entire voyage to the moon sequence as originally planned-an epic endeavor that was scrapped from the film for, what else, budgetary reasons. Three deleted scenes and an alternate opening (which shows off the spectacular sets and costumed extras) round out the second disc.
See the Baron dance with Venus! See a man outrun a speeding bullet! See the beautiful, mad fiasco that is The Adventures of Baron Munchausen-see it if you dare!