Monday, January 30, 2012

A Master Plays A Fairy Tale Worth Returning To With The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen!

The Good: Excellent direction, Great acting, Interesting characters
The Bad: Very old plot, Some pacing and editing issues
The Basics: With an phenomenal cast and great characters, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen takes the viewer on a ride that reminds us of the power of imagination.

Terry Gilliam, the co-writer and director of Brazil, is a cinematic genius. He has a brilliance to him that is unmatched, even in this day where computer generated special effects can make magic in the most marvelous sense. Brazil is, quite possibly, the best film of all time, enduring even now. Terry Gilliam comes with a great deal of street credibility in my book. It would take a lot for me to not give a new Terry Gilliam movie a chance (even after seeing Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas). It was with great pleasure that I sat down to watch The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, a fairy-tale that Gilliam has described in press as a final act to a story told by viewing Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen collectively.

This is a distinctive Terry Gilliam picture and it is somewhat disappointing that even on DVD it does not get much in the way of special attention. There is no special edition, no commentary, no bonuses outside foreign language subtitles, biographies of Gilliam and Eric Idle and the theatrical trailer for the movie.

What is this, then?

The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen is essentially a fairy tale. As a proud city falls under siege of the Sultan during the Age of Reason, a legendary figure from the past named Baron Munchausen appears to contradict the myths about himself. Claiming only he may end the siege, Munchausen reveals the origins of the war as one of his many adventures. Surrounded by the fastest human alive, Berthold, and an array of almost superhuman comrades, Munchausen reveals that the Sultan's discontent is over a trick Munchausen pulled on him decades ago.

At the urgings of a local girl, Sally, Munchausen vows to save the city by reuniting with his old group and liberating the people from the Sultan's siege. Munchausen and Sally then head off to find Berthold, the exceptionally strong Albrecht, the keen-eared, magnificently winded Gustavus and the sharp-eyed Adolphus. Their quest takes them to the moon, the center of a volcano, and the ends of the earth and they meet impressive figures along the way, including gods and goddesses, giants and killer fish.

At the end of the day, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen is about reuniting old comrades (in the literal sense) and the importance of elders passing on history and myth and imagination to the youth (in the metaphorical). This movie works very well when viewed in its metaphorical context, because otherwise, it's pretty dull. I mean, a story about an old man looking for his friends is not exactly a killer great plot. Either he finds them or he does not, either the city is saved or it falls, plot-wise, this movie is a bit of a lightweight.

Terry Gilliam (and co-writer Charles McKeown, who also stars in the movie as Adolphus) compensate for the weak plot with an exceptionally interesting assortment of characters. These are intriguing individuals who populate Gilliam's world and Gilliam and McKeown do not disappoint in keeping the movie moving through interesting creatures, like the man on the moon with the detachable head. With an almost Swiftian view of the Age of Reason, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen reinvigorates the viewer with the sense that imagination makes the extraordinary possible. Indeed, there are few points in the fantastic story where the viewer sits up and says "That's impossible," so engrossing are the characters.

What does pull the viewer out from time to time are a series of rough edits, especially in the latter half of the movie and during the action sequences. There are several cuts between various camera angles and perspectives that are very sharp, problematically cut together. Some moments felt like they were truncated, as if there was not enough material to get the ideal take and the director was forced to go with what he had. Lacking a commentary track, it's difficult to say what was going on.

That said, the actors give astounding performances. It's pleasant to see Uma Thurmond in one of her earlier roles and Jonathan Pryce steals his scenes playing Horatio Jackson as an antithesis to his heroic Sam Lowry from Brazil. Peter Jeffrey is great as the Sultan as well.

But the film turns on two performances. The first is Sarah Polley. Polley plays Sally, the defiant girl who believes in Baron Munchausen and his adventures and steals away with the Baron to help him find his friends. Her youthful rejection of reason for imagination suggests there is a spark in each of us to change the world. Polley brings that forth in a way that only a child actress can; by being an actual child and not an older person playing a youth or some computer-generated child, Polley comes across as perfectly natural and completely genuine. She "reads" as a real person in a way that makes her character utterly credible.

The other pivotal performance is that of John Neville, who plays Baron Munchausen. Neville is magnificent as Munchausen, portraying the hero with alternating senility and wisdom, seamlessly taking the character from confident to cynical to childlike to mentor. Neville has an impressive dignity to him that he brought to the character of Munchausen, making the character's journey one told not only in lines but in subtle voice modulation and rigid posture. Neville makes Munchausen riveting. Without an actor of John Neville's caliber and character, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen would have been sunk.

Who will like this movie? Anyone who needs a shot in the arm of imagination, a reminder of the importance of teaching children and thinking outside the box. This is ideal for those who want to be reminded that a single person can change the world (but for those who do not want to invest the time or money on Babylon 5). It won't be enjoyed by those who have lost all sense of delight in the absurd or those who are unable to make leaps of fancy.

It is a shame, for they are the people who need this movie the most.

For other films by Terry Gilliam, be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus
12 Monkeys


For other movie reviews, please be sure to visit my Film Review Index Page by clicking here!

© 2012, 2005 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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