The Adventures of Baron Munchausen Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: A Wondrous Story about a Wondrous Storyteller by a Wondrous Filmmaker

Co-writer/director Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen has the distinction of being the sixth Gilliam-directed title (#1166) released by the Criterion Collection, alongside in chronological order Jabberwocky (#903) Time Bandits (#37), Brazil (#51), The Fisher King (764), and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (175). Based upon stories about Munchausen, the film is a colorful fantasy set in the late 18th century, the Age of Reason, as superimposed titles reveal. An important distinction because the film demonstrates art should not solely be ruled by reason, a conversation likely had by Gilliam and the businessmen involved with his projects, considering the troubles he’s had getting films made, including this one as revealed in the extras.

An unnamed European city is being bombarded by Turkish forces. Within the city, the Harry Solt and Son Players, a name his daughter Sally (Sarah Polley) rejects, is putting on a production of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in the hopes of getting the approval to continue from Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce), the city’s political leader who runs the city with such a twisted “logic” he orders the death of a soldier (Sting) because his heroic exploits could demoralize others not capable of the same actions.

An elderly man (John Neville) claiming to be the actual Baron arrives and disrupts the play because it doesn’t tell the story correctly. He proceeds to tell the theater audience about his being the cause for the war: he won a bet that saw him empty the Grand Turk’s treasury. The movie masterfully segues from the Baron telling the story in the theater into the events plying out in a flashback. Munchausen is assisted by a fantastic foursome: strong man Albrecht (Winston Dennis), speedster Berthold (Eric), eagle-eyed sharpshooter Adolphus (co-writer Charles McKeown), and diminutive Gustavos (Jack Purvis), who had great hearing and had lungs that could blow as strong as a hurricane. All four look exactly like four members of the Solt players.

The Baron’s story is interrupted by a bombardment. The Angel of Death comes for the Baron, but Sally saves him, although he’s not happy about it as the state of the world is not for him. Sally’s interest in his story invigorates him. He decides to go searching for his missing servants by way of a balloon put together from sewn-together knickers. Sally stows away and travels with the Baron to the Moon, into the volcano of Mt. Etna, through the Earth’s core, and back again, and it’s lucky she did because she’s integral in getting them to save her friends and the city. In addition to his cohorts, who have all aged quite a bit, they meet and have to escape from notable figures such as the King (an uncredited but unmistakable Robin Williams) and Queen (Valentina Cortese) of the Moon, the gods Vulcan (Oliver Reed in one of his funniest roles) and Venus (Uma Thurman), and a whale-like monster.

Under Gilliam’s guidance, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is filled with brilliant production design and special effects that may leave you awestruck by what’s on screen. But it’s not all artistic wizardy as the talented cast anchors the film, bringing to life characters to care for. The film brings to mind The Wizard of Oz. Not only because characters from the “real” world play others in the Baron and Sally’s adventures, but because it’s a fantasy film that should appeal to all ages.

The video has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at the film’s original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The liner notes reveal “it was restored in 4K resolution by Sony Pictures Entertainment. The 4K wet-gate scan of the 35 mm original camera negative was done by Cineric, Inc. in New York. Digital image restoration was done by Prasad in Burbank, California. Color grading was done in HDR (high dynamic range) by Sheri Eisenberg at Roundabout Entertainment in Santa Monica, California…The restoration was supervised by Grover Crisp for [SPE] with color approval by director Terry Gilliam.”

The bold hues pop off the screen, such as the reds of the Baron’s jacket and Vulcan’s domain, and the yellow of Berthold’s outfit. The image has a sharp focus and an apparent depth, which makes the flats of buildings on the Moon more noticeable. The texture details on the costumes, sets, and props showcase the craftsman and women, and adds to the believability of many special effects. Scenes with smoke and/or with a blue sky background increase the film grain.

The audio is available in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Also from the liner notes, “Audio restoration and conform of the 5.1 surround soundtrack (which was upmixed in 2004) was done by Deluxe Audio in Hollywood.” The dialogue is clear. Composer Michael Kamen’s score fills the surrounds. There are a lot of explosions, delivered with great oomph in part thanks to subwoofer support. The effects can be heard in the surrounds but didn’t noticed much positioning or panning across channels.

On Disc One, there is a commentary recorded in 2008 by Gilliam and McKeown. There’s is a Disc Two Blu-ray filled with extras. They are:

  • The Madness and Misadventures of Munchausen (72 min) – Produced in 2008, a three-part documentary about the making of the film with a number of its participants. A lot of interesting information regarding the business of moviemaking.
  • Special Effects (16 min) – Narrated by Gilliam, this 2022 featurette allows viewers to see how the special effects shots were created.
  • Deleted Scenes – Four deleted scenes, roughly a minute each, with optional commentary by Gilliam.
  • Storyboards for Unfilmed Scenes (30 min) – Storyboards created by Gilliam for scenes that had to be cut due to budgetary issues detailed inThe Madness and…”. Gilliam and McKeown introduce the three sequences, read from the screenplay, and provide sound effects.
  • Marketing Munchausen – In 2022, Gilliam hysterically responds to the Preview Cards (12 min) from audience members and the Taglines (4 min) created by advertising/marketing folks. Archival promotional material such as Meet Baron Munchausen. (4 min), Production Featurette (8 min), and Trailer (2 min).
  • The Astonishing (and Really True) History of Baron Munchausen (17 min) In this video essay, critic David Cairns tells the history of the man and of the fictional character, including its cinematic appearances, such as Karel Zeman’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, which is also in the Criterion Collection.
  • The South Bank Show: Terry Gilliam (47 min) – An episode from 1991 that profiles Gilliam’s life and career.
  • Miracle of Flight (5 min) – A silly animated short film by Terry Gilliam from 1974. It looks like his work on Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a film filled with great imagination, much like its titular character and its director. The Oscar-nominated art direction, costume design, visual effects, and makeup are a wonder to behold in high definition and fans will love digging into the plethora of extra material. The film suggests the power of stories and imagination can triumph over forces. It’s a wonderful sentiment that Gilliam no doubt wholeheartedly believes in, but the film’s failure at the box office, suggests the logical businessmen may have had a point as well. Hopefully by being added to the Criterion Collection, the film will get a reappraisal and earn a larger audience that enjoys it.

Gordon S. Miller

Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of this site. "I'm making this up as I go" - Indiana Jones

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