Terry Gilliam’s a weird guy. Given that he was a member of the Monty Python troupe, we can safely assume that he is funny, and that’s very true. But, if you delve a little bit deeper into his work, you will find that beyond the humor, there’s a rather bleak world view and a great deal of cynicism with regard to human nature. While his 1985 offering, Brazil, is perhaps the best example of these themes, 1988’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, though masquerading as a fairy story, is actually no less bitter in its skewering of bureaucracy and society as a whole. Think of it as dystopian fiction (almost) for kids.
Our story opens on a besieged city, indeterminate in time and location. An embattled theatrical troupe is attempting to entertain the masses by presenting the adventures of the legendary Baron Munchausen. When the man himself (John Neville) turns up to set the record straight, he is given the task of saving the city from the Turks who threaten to destroy it. To do this, he must round up his long-lost band of merry men: Berthold (Eric Idle), Adolphus (Charles McKeown), Albrecht (Winston Davis), and Gustavus (Jack Purvis). Each of these men has an incredible, super-human talent, and together, Munchausen and his men have indeed had mythical adventures. However, now they’re all old and decrepit; the Baron himself really only seems to long for Death. Spurred on by Sally Salt (Sarah Polley), a young girl who believes all the stories, will Munchausen manage to track down his men, and will they be able to defeat not only the Turks, but also The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce), a bureaucrat seemingly intent on keeping the city under siege?
This is a crazy movie. I had seen parts of it as a kid, and I really thought that it was just this sort of fun, fairy tale romp. Not quite. Parts of it are fun, but other parts are truly, truly weird, and some parts are even downright scary. Running through it all is Gilliam’s trademark cynicism, most notably manifest in the “scheduling” of the siege, agreed upon by the Turkish Sultan (Peter Jeffrey) and Jackson. In order to find his men, Munchausen and Sally travel to the Moon (ruled by Robin Williams at his most insane), a volcano, where the Baron comes between the God Vulcan (Oliver Reed!) and his wife Venus (Uma Thurman), and the belly of a gigantic fish.
Obviously, the film boasts an excellent cast, many of them Gilliam regulars. John Neville carries the story well as the roguish Baron; he is simultaneously dashing and weary of the world. Jonathan Pryce, who plays the hero in Brazil, gets to have more fun this time around as the “villainous” Jackson. In smaller roles, Robin Williams exceeds expectations of madness, and Oliver Reed’s truly bizarre presentation of Vulcan is utterly fascinating to watch. Sarah Polley (now a well-respected director) does fine as the feisty Sally; playing the “kid” in a movie is often a thankless job, but it is her determination that keeps the action moving along.
Although the structure of the storyline is somewhat confusing, the film is visually fascinating thanks to Gilliam’s artistic sensibilities. The film received four artistic Oscar nominations, and deservedly so: it’s a beautiful film to look at. It’s of a higher production quality than Brazil, and the effects are reasonably impressive for the late eighties. Munchausen is clearly meant to appeal to a broader audience than Brazil. Still, it seems to me that Gilliam is very definitely not for everyone; there are plenty of moments where even someone familiar with his work will be left scratching his or her head. It’s hard to explain what is so odd about the movie; part of the issue is that Gilliam is clearly trying to say something, but it’s not entirely clear what that something is, at least in this instance. Brazil is more effective in its satirization of a bureaucratic dystopia, while Munchausen wanders a bit and occasionally gets bogged down in the details. In the final tally, it’s a more entertaining film, I think, particularly if one likes one’s fantasy a bit more bright and shiny. Perhaps the two might make an interesting double feature. If anyone tries that, please let me know it goes!