The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen

The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Tragically overlooked on its release, this sumptuously extravagant film very nearly finished the career of Monty Python's Terry Gilliam. If one looks at it from a studio financier's point of view, it's not hard to see why. Whole features have been made on the kind of budget which Gilliam blows just in the first scene, in which the Turkish bombardment of a fantastically built medieval walled city creates gorgeously choreographed visual chaos. As vastly expensive pieces of set tumble everywhere one cannot help but consider that white elephants, whilst they mat be a burden to keep, are splendid things to look at.

The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen recounts some of the exploits of a hero as famous for his creativity with the truth as for anything he was actually said to have done. In doing so, it skilfully blurs the line between fact and fiction, realism and fantasy. Gilliam's ever-present concern with the liberating power of the imagination is balanced by a casual approach to the unpleasantness of life and an occasionally indulgence in cheerfully disgusting imagery.

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The film's young heroine, Sally, ably played by Sarah Polley, experiences real suffering in a world where nobody makes allowances for her age and she is often left to fend for herself, but as such she is able to grow and to enjoy her own triumphs in a way which most child heroes never can. As with all Gilliam's fantasy works, this is old-style fairytale territory, haphazard and brutal, filled with utterly self-centered characters, but that only adds to its charm, and Sally provides it with an element of humanity quite sufficient to keep the viewer feeling involved.

In Baron Munchausen's world, there's nowhere we can't go. Gilliam checks off all the top adventure locations: the Moon, the South Seas, even the inside of a volcano. Every scene is brilliantly realised and inhabited by unforgettable characters. Oliver Reed is perfectly cast as a gruff industrialist Vulcan, god of thunder, whilst Uma Thurman delights as his wayward wife Venus, stepping straight out of a Botticelli painting.

There's every kind of adventure, too, from sailing through space to racing across the desert, swordfighting, carousing, escaping from prison, chasing a speeding bullet and making a giant balloon out of underwear. There are dastardly villains firing cannon, chopping off heads and incorporating torture victims in musical instruments. Everything is bigger and louder than it needs to be, creating an overwhelming vista in which poor Sally must struggle to assert herself and tell her own story.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen may be a bit scary for small children, but it's still the sort of thing they'll love, and there's plenty here for adults to enjoy besides. It stands as a glorious testament to what a determined director can get away with, and it shouldn't be forgotten.

Reviewed on: 18 Jun 2007
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The unbelievable but (allegedly) true story of the exploits of Hieronymus Karl Frederick Baron von Munchausen and a small girl.
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Director: Terry Gilliam

Writer: Charles McKeown, Terry Gilliam

Starring: John Neville, Sarah Polley, Eric Idle, Oliver Reed, Charles McKeown, Winston Dennis, Jack Purvis, Jonathan Pryce, Uma Thurman

Year: 1988

Runtime: 126 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK, Germany

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