Terry Gilliam’s wildly ambitious (and mostly successful) version of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen returns to the Criterion Collection in a glorious new 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray. The comic fantasy stars John Neville as the infamous fabulist, while the ensemble cast of colorful sidekicks and grotesque foils includes Sarah Polley, Eric Idle, Robin Williams, Oliver Reed, Valentina Cortese, and Uma Thurman. Criterion’s 4K UHD/Blu-ray combo set offers richly textured visuals and tons of extras: some new, some taken from the previous Blu-ray release, and some revived from Criterion’s laserdisc edition. Highly Recommended
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a film with a reputation it doesn’t entirely deserve. It never got the same level of bad publicity as Heaven’s Gate or Ishtar, but it has long been grouped in with those films as a classic example of a director’s hubris leading to an out-of-control, over-budget production. Setting aside the revisionist defenses of those famous flops I mentioned, the Munchausen situation seems different. It’s more like an early case of director Terry Gilliam getting hamstrung by bad luck and bad taste in business partners, a theme which would resurface again and again for him throughout the 21st Century.
After all, it’s hard to deny that all the money is on the screen. Like Jabberwocky and Time Bandits, Munchausen is a meticulously designed fantasy that takes as much care with the filth as the filigree. The unnamed 18th Century European city that serves as the film’s main setting is under constant bombardment, which Gilliam stages like a grand, explosion-filled battle epic where no one appears to be winning and the common folk are definitely losing. When the film departs the real world, our hero ventures up onto the moon and down into the belly of a great monster-fish. The eye-grabbing blend of practical design, practical effects, and optical-based VFX puts most modern $200+ million blockbusters to shame. If Columbia Pictures had bothered to give it a decent theatrical release, it might not have gone down as a financial disaster.
Stage and TV veteran John Neville stars as the legendary Baron, an adventurer, and spinner of yarns popularized in the stories of Rudolph Erich Raspe and the illustrations of Gustave Doré. At the start of the film, the Baron interrupts a slightly ramshackle but fairly imaginative theatrical performance of his exploits. He storms the stage, refuting the presentation’s insinuation that he’s nothing but an old liar. He also claims that the Ottoman Empire’s bombardment of the city is his fault, since the Grand Turk is angry about how the Baron won the Turk’s entire treasury in a wager.
Gilliam and co-writer Charles McKeown (who also worked on Brazil and, years later, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) find a clever way to bundle together as many memorable incidents from the Raspe stories by giving the Baron a quest to gather up his own old gang, one by one so that together they can finally defeat the Grand Turk. This allows the Baron and his determined 8-year-old sidekick, Sally Salt (Sarah Polley), to make that aforementioned trip to the moon, where they are bedeviled by the giant King of the Moon (played by a heavily improvising Robin Williams with a detachable head), before finding the fleet-footed Berthold (Monty Python alum Eric Idle). From there, they tumble down into a volcano where the god Vulcan (Oliver Reed) oversees a workforce of cyclopes to make all manner of weapons. The Baron goes for an airborne dance with Vulcan’s wife Venus (Uma Thurman – va va voom!) and discovers his strongman pal Albrecht (Winston Dennis) before they’re all cast into the sea by a jealous Vulcan. And as promised, a giant sea monster gobbles up the adventurers, only to reveal that more pals, the sharp-eared Gustavus (Jack Purvis) and the sharp-eyed Adolphus (Charles McKeown), plus the Baron’s horse (!), are already inside.
As the film ramps up to its big final act, in which the reassembled team goes to fight the Grand Turk and his army, it can be tempting to start glancing at one’s watch. While each of the film’s episodes are quite delightful on its own, the way all these sequences stack up is a little lacking in forward momentum. The film’s 126-minute running time is not too ungainly on paper, but one would be forgiven for quietly siding with the studio philistines who suggested that Gilliam trim a little more.
Aside from the minor editorial flab, however, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is ultimately winning: full of charming performances, grand spectacle, and some unabashed silliness. John Neville does a phenomenal job as the stately center of this comic hurricane, with manic ringers like Robin Williams and Eric Idle bouncing off of him. Even Oliver Reed couples his signature menace with the kind of unbridled wackiness seldom seen in his other work.
Sarah Polley recently wrote about her experiences making this film, describing the production as unsafe and traumatizing. However, she gave viewers “unconditional permission to still love the movie.” Some may not care, but Polley’s performance as little Sally Salt is so much of the emotional core of this film, that it feels reassuring to be given this blessing.
The film is said to complete an informal trilogy about dreamers at different stages of life, after Time Bandits (the dreamer as child) and Brazil (the dreamer as adult). With its tale of a geriatric dreamer, who gets younger the more he gives over to imagination, Munchausen is possibly the most optimistic film of the three. The specter of Death lurks over the proceedings, but even that beast is bested by the power of dreams. In certain other films, Gilliam’s idealism ultimately curdles into cynicism; but with Munchausen, the fairy tale ending is the final word.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen lands on 4K UHD from Criterion, packaged in one of Criterion’s signature keepcases. The set includes 1 4K UHD disc and 2 Blu-rays; the 4K and Blu #1 (feature and commentary) are housed on overlapping hubs, while Blu #2 (additional bonus features) is stashed on a hub behind the Criterion insert. The fold-out insert includes an essay by the Museum of the Moving Image’s Michael Koresky. All discs load to a static screen with music.
As per Criterion’s handy restoration notes, this 2160p HEVC-encoded presentation (Dolby Vision/HDR-10 compatible) was restored in 4K by Sony Pictures Entertainment. Framed at the original 1.85:1, this began with a 4K wet-gate scan of the OCN and ended with HDR color grading approved by Terry Gilliam. As such, it’s hard to picture this flick looking much better.
The painterly qualities of the Italian maestri on Gilliam’s crew really come through in this transfer. I was struck by the detailed textures of Dante Feretti’s production design, cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno’s striking use of both drab and sumptuous color palettes in different sections of the story, and Gabriella Pescucci’s mix of period and fantasy costumes. I was particularly curious to see how the layered optical effects would hold up to the 4K treatment, and I was pleasantly shocked: they not only look excellent, but the FX shots organically blend with the overall texture of the film.
Noting that this DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround track is sourced from an upmix created in 2004, I must presume this is the mix which got a lukewarm review from this site in 2008 (although that version was presented in Dolby TrueHD). Maybe I’m a lighter touch in this department, but I found this mix to be quite satisfying. The soundtrack is not overwhelming in immersive or directional effects, but it is well-supported and offers a nice showcase for the playful score by Gilliam’s music collaborator from Brazil, Michael Kamen. One subtitle option is offered for the feature: English SDH.
4K UHD Disc:
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is given dazzling treatment on this new release. Terry Gilliam’s MAD Magazine-meets-Federico Fellini compositions are reproduced in beautiful detail in this new 4K UHD presentation from Criterion Collection. The set also comes loaded with a full Blu-ray of extras, both old and new. This is generous and vital release for all you cinephile dreamers, young and old. Highly Recommended