Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (UK, 1988)

Gilliam must be the king of fantasy films, his filmography lists some true cults and this tale of tall stories is no exception. What I find fascinating about this film is the fact its actually based on a real person and what he actually claimed. An 18th Century German nobleman who spoke or boasted of his outrageous adventures whilst at war against the Ottoman Empire. Whether of not this chap was possibly a bit tipsy at time I don't know but its quite amazing to think this man made himself into a bit of a legend through these tall tales.

The films plot starts off in the present day of the film and then briefly as a short story told by Munchausen himself. It then leads back into the present day of the film again and carries on as an adventure, presumably the same adventures adapted from the Barons own stories. In short we follow the Baron and a little girl as he goes off to find his close friends so he can then return to this unnamed European city and save them from the attacking Turks.

Surreal isn't the word...or maybe it is, as this film is right out there with Gilliam's other bizarre fantasy worlds. Of course the film is based on the novels that recount the tall tales of the real man in question so I'm guessing that what we see is actually the real Munchausen's imagination and Gilliam has just recreated it, with some artistic license I'm sure. What is accurate to the source material I can't say as I have not read the books.

So the main plot point is for Munchausen to find his four compadres who are scattered around in this bizarre universe. We follow the Baron as he travels to the Moon of all places, to the South China sea, the belly of a huge sea monster (familiar story line for fairytales) and deep below the Earth in the realm of the Roman God Vulcan. A heavily character driven movie with each little venture being hosted by new outlandish people. I think most viewers may have forget that Robin Williams was in this film as the headless King of the Moon...and oh my is he annoying, yep its that old Williams routine that makes you wanna slap him. I guess he suits the crazy character but it just feels like the Robin Williams show.

Another performance that felt a little weird was Oliver Reed as the God Vulcan. I'm not entirely sure Reed even knows he's in a film here, he plays the character as an oafish quick tempered stereotypical British northerner, whilst also coming across like a simpleton and a bit drunk, so that's just an aging Reed then. A young Uma Thurman portrays his wife Venus which stuns you because she was actually pretty back then, doesn't say much though.

There are so many characters in this film I couldn't possibly go through them all. Pryce is the perfect choice as the snivelling city official, Eric Idle and Jack Purvis take to this extreme fantasy like a duck to water with all their previous fantasy film/Gilliam experience but its John Neville who steals the show as the Baron. For a start the makeup is brilliant and really captures those typical aristocratic features, they really nail the real life caricature of Munchausen. I also loved that old fashioned gentlemanly lordly performance by Neville, both dashing and flamboyant in his beautiful period attire, sword at his side, elegant facial hair and perfectly pompous wig. One could say a dignified pirate appearance. Its a bit odd how his age keeps changing from time to time depending on the specific escapade they are on but every time Neville looks terrific. It really is quite incredible how he actually resembles some real historic images from the era.

The film can't help but look a bit dated these days I'm afraid, for its time the film was top of its game but these days the cracks show. Not to say that dampens your enjoyment of the film, if anything it heightens it and adds to the delightful charm of all you see. There is something about Gilliam films, that unique look that has carried through with other projects like 'Time Bandits' and 'Jabberwocky', its almost crappy looking, obvious effects yet somehow it just works. This film has it all with the added bonus of some lovely period costumes and that wonderful theatre set opening.

I must admit the film doesn't quite hold up the wonder it used to have for me when I was but a mere sprog. The fantasy element is excellent and feels more like a traditional fairytale or dream more than anything, not so much like an Indy type adventure. I think some bits work and some don't, the whole Moon part feels a bit stupid in all honesty and I didn't like Reed's God, but getting swallowed by the sea monster is the quintessential time-honoured fantasy fodder that I liked. There are many golden classic images and sequences in this film that have stood the test of time. That along with Neville's grand performance and some sumptuous sets and costumes you can see why this film was nominated for so many awards.