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Review: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

This lavishly over-the-top and notoriously expensive oddity is essentially a compilation of Monty Python gags and storybook adventure.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Photo: Columbia Pictures

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.

Cast: John Neville, Eric Idle, Sarah Polley, Oliver Reed, Uma Thurman, Jonathan Pryce, Valentina Cortese Director: Terry Gilliam Screenwriter: Terry Gilliam, Charles McKeown Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 127 min Rating: PG Year: 1988 Buy: Video

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