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Release Date: January 3rd, 2023 Movie Release Year: 1988

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - The Criterion Collection 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray

Overview -

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 boundless imagination of Terry Gilliam yields a dazzling fantasy of epic proportions. Inspired by the extravagant exploits of the fabled Baron Munchausen, this spectacle—born of a famously turbulent production—follows the whimsical eighteenth-century nobleman (John Neville) as he embarks on an outlandish quest that takes him from faraway lands to the moon to the belly of a sea monster and beyond, meanwhile waging battle against a vengeful sultan and the tyranny of logic. Packed frame to frame with special effects, mischievous wit, and colorful performances—including a young Sarah Polley as the Baron’s no-nonsense sidekick—the Oscar-nominated The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a lavish celebration of the triumph of make-believe over reality.

DIRECTOR-APPROVED 4K UHD + BLU-RAY SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES

  • New 4K digital restoration, approved by writer-director Terry Gilliam, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack
  • One 4K UHD disc of the film presented in Dolby Vision HDR and two Blu-rays with the film and special features
  • Audio commentary featuring Gilliam and his coscreenwriter, Charles McKeown
  • Documentary on the making of the film
  • New video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns about the history of the Baron Munchausen character
  • Behind-the-scenes footage of the film’s special effects, narrated by Gilliam
  • Deleted scenes with commentary by Gilliam
  • Storyboards for unfilmed scenes, narrated by Gilliam and McKeown
  • Original marketing materials including a trailer and electronic-press-kit featurettes, as well as preview cards and advertising proposals read by Gilliam
  • Miracle of Flight (1974), an animated short film by Gilliam
  • Episode of The South Bank Show from 1991 on Gilliam
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • PLUS: An essay by critic and author Michael Koresky

    New cover by Abigail Giuseppe

OVERALL:
Highly Recommended
Rating Breakdown
STORY
VIDEO
AUDIO
SPECIAL FEATURES
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
One 4K UHD disc of the film presented in Dolby Vision HDR and two Blu-rays with the film and special features
Video Resolution/Codec:
2160p/
Length:
126
Aspect Ratio(s):
1.85:1
Audio Formats:
5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack
Release Date:
January 3rd, 2023

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take

Ranking:

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.

Video Review

Ranking:

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.

Audio Review

Ranking:

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.

Special Features

Ranking:

4K UHD Disc:

  • Audio commentary by director/co-writer Terry Gilliam and co-writer/actor Charles McKeown - Ported over from Sony’s 2008 Blu-ray release, this is a nicely conversational and wryly funny commentary, full of recollections about the writing, production, and legacy of the film. (The Criterion laserdisc commentary with Gilliam solo is still MIA.)

Blu-ray Disc:

  • Audio commentary by director/co-writer Terry Gilliam and co-writer/actor Charles McKeown
  • The Madness and Misadventures of Munchausen (HD 72:18) - Also brought over from the 2008 Blu, this three-part documentary offers a thorough look into the tumultuous production and release of this film. Punches are not pulled, especially as director Terry Gilliam and producer Thomas Schuhly throw shade at each other – and sling a bit of mud as well.
  • Special Effects (HD 16:10) - A new piece in which Terry Gilliam narrates clips and photos of various elements from different FX sequences, explaining how they were separately created and then composited optically or ultimately produced on-set practically. A run of unused Robin Williams ad-libs, with the actor stuck in the Moon King rig, is also featured.
  • Deleted Scenes (HD 3:53) - 4 relatively brief trims with optional audio commentary from Terry Gilliam.
  • Storyboards for Unfilmed Scenes (HD 29:35) - Terry Gilliam and co-writer/actor Charles McKeown provide context, narration, and cartoony vocal performances for storyboard animatics of three unrealized sequences. The middle section, set on the moon, runs over twenty minutes. Gilliam and McKeown joke that a sequence where the Baron’s horse is cut in two, causing each half to operate independently, is such a good sequence that they should have scrapped most of the film and just shot that bit.
  • Preview Audience Response Cards (HD 11:50) - In a new piece, Gilliam reads a variety of test screening responses in a predictably crotchety fashion. My favorite audience reaction: “It Blue [sic] Dead Dogs.”
  • Proposed Advertising Lines (HD 3:51) - More crotchety old Gilliam. The director breaks down a number of proposed and abandoned marketing ideas and taglines for the film.
  • Meet Baron Munchausen (HD upscale 4:16) - A vintage video pitch to exhibitors from a mildly exhausted Gilliam about why they should book his film.
  • Featurette (HD 7:59) - The original EPK, including on-set footage and soundbites from Gilliam and the cast.
  • Trailer (HD 1:52)
  • The Astonishing (and Really True) History of Baron Munchausen (HD 17:20) - Filmmaker and critic David Cairns traces the legacy of Baron Munchausen, from the original historical figure to Rudolf Erich Raspe’s stories to Gustave Doré’s illustrations and up through the numerous film iterations throughout the 20th Century.
  • The South Bank Show (HD 47:09) - A 1991 episode of the UK TV program shows director Terry Gilliam at home. He plays with his kids, shows off his office, argues with collaborator (and former Python) Michael Palin, and discusses his career up through his then-current release, The Fisher King.
  • Miracle of Flight (HD 5:24) - A 1974 animated short, done in Gilliam’s signature style from the Monty Python shows. It cheekily portrays many quixotic attempts to get humans to fly.

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