Year of Release: 1988 Directed by Terry Gilliam. Starring John Neville, Sarah Polley, Eric Idle, Charles McKeown, Winston Dennis, Jack Purvis, Uma Thurman, Bill Paterson, Jonathan Pryce, and Oliver Reed.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a film so visually spectacular that to fully appreciate the zany genius of Terry Gilliam it portrays, one has to see it. Words will not do its imagery justice. Gilliam’s film is a story about sea monsters, Roman gods and goddesses, giants, detachable heads, reverse aging, escaping the grim reaper, flying to the moon in a ship, a man who can outrun a speeding bullet, another who can see halfway around the world, one who can blow down an entire army, and one who is the strongest man alive. The film depicts a series of adventures that defy all conventional standards of reality, depicting the banality of a world deprived of fantasy and laughing at the joy which fantasy inspires.
At the center of all these adventures is the eccentric Baron Munchausen (John Neville). Living in the midst of the Age of Reason, the Baron’s tales defy every reasonable standard and rule of logic, infuriating the Right Honorable Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce), who insists that the Baron “won’t get far on hot air and fantasy,” but that is exactly what the Baron does, literally.
I am aware that my love for this film may make me seem crazy, but I don’t care. Gilliam is one of the only directors who could film such a story with complete seriousness, while finding joy and humor in the fantastic proceedings. (Remember: serious is not the opposite of funny. The opposite of funny is unfunny.) The Baron’s adventures are a testament both to Gilliam’s unique vision and to the importance of fantasy in transforming the inconveniences of life into amazing adventures.
One adventure of the Baron leads him and the young Sally Salt (Sarah Polley) to the moon in search of Berthold (Eric Idle), the fastest man in the world, because that was where the Baron last saw Berthold twenty or so years ago. While sailing there in a ship suspended by a hot air balloon made of petticoats, the Baron promises his child companion a warm welcome from his good friend the King of the Moon. When they end up locked in a sort of birdcage, because that piccolo Casanova (the Baron) tried to make love to the king’s wife, Sally is understandably disgusted, but the Baron views it as another twist in their adventure.
Prior to being locked up, when Sally and the Baron first meet the King of the Moon, his appearance is incredible. The King has a detachable floating head that separates itself from his body and goes off in pursuit of knowledge, while his body pursues…bodily things. As that head floats into the screen for the first time, Robin Williams appears in what is a strong contender for his funniest cameo ever. His head and body are at war with one another, the latter being obsessed with physical appetites, and the former suffering delusions of grandeur from the information it has attained. Uttering lines like, “You must refer to me by my complete title: King of Everything, Rei di Tutto. But you may call me Ray,” followed by “I think; therefore, you is.” Williams delivers the humor perfectly, and he embodies the magic and danger of this world with its unpredictable curveballs. Watching him now makes his recent passing all the more tragic.
Sally and the Baron’s other adventures are as unpredictable as their run-in with the King of the Moon. They are searching for the Baron’s four former companions, so the five of them can stop the invading Turks from destroying the European city where Sally lives. Their extraordinary encounters turn from delight to danger in an instant as they climb down from the moon on a rope, fall through a volcano, meet Venus (Uma Thurman) and Vulcan (Oliver Reed), and combat a sea monster.
Taking a page from The Wizard of Oz, the dangers that the Baron and Sally face reflect the dangers facing Sally’s world back home. Several of the characters they meet are portrayed by actors who double as members of a theatre company run by Sally’s father (Bill Paterson). However, the similarity between fantasy and reality functions both ways. The theatre company performs productions of the adventures of the legendary Baron Munchausen, and everyone is shocked and incredulous when a man shows up claiming to be the actual Baron. Everyone except Sally, who innocently accepts his word as if there is nothing unusual about the tales she has grown up hearing.
It is not surprising that Sally easily accepts the Baron’s word. The opening scene makes clear that she neither understands nor cares about the proper rules and conventions that reason and practice dictate. Her father’s posters read “Salt and Son,” because that’s the way it is done. She adamantly insists that her father either reveal her non-existent brother or fix his posters.
Sally’s sense of wonder and her appreciation of fantasy is something that is sadly missing in the enlightened, logic obsessed Age of Reason. That obsession with logic and reason and disdain for fantasy is personified by the town’s mayor, the Right Honorable Horatio Jackson, who smugly tells the Baron he has no grasp of reality, to which the Baron happily replies, “Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash and I’m delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever.” The Baron’s reality may appear to be nonsense, but to quote Theodor Seuss Geisel: “[Nonsense] wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.”
Content Advisory: Sexual innuendo throughout, partial nudity, and mild peril. MPAA rating: PG
Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.
Personal Recommendation: A+