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The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a 1988 adventure fantasy film co-written and directed by Terry Gilliam and starring John Neville, Sarah Polley, Eric Idle, Jonathan Pryce, Oliver Reed, and Uma Thurman. The film is based on the tall tales about the 18th-century German nobleman Baron Munchausen and his wartime exploits against the Ottoman Empire.

The film was a box office bomb, grossing just $8 million against its $46 million budget and losing the studio $38 million. However, it received positive reviews from critics and was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup.

Plot

In an unnamed war-torn European city in the "Age of Reason", amid explosions and gunfire from a large Ottoman army outside the city gates, a fanciful touring stage production of Baron Munchausen's life and adventures is taking place. In a theatre box, the mayor, "The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson", reinforces the city's commitment to reason by ordering the execution of a soldier who had just accomplished a near-superhuman feat of bravery, claiming that his bravery is demoralizing to other soldiers and citizens.

Not far into the play, an elderly man claiming to be the real Baron interrupts the show, protesting its many inaccuracies. Over the complaints of the audience, the theatre company and Jackson, the "real" Baron gains the house's attention and narrates through flashback an account of one of his adventures, of a life-or-death wager with the Grand Turk, where the younger Baron's life is saved only by his amazing luck plus the assistance of his remarkable associates: Berthold, the world's fastest runner; Adolphus, a rifleman with superhuman eyesight; Gustavus, who possesses extraordinary hearing, and sufficient lung power to knock down an army by exhaling; and the fantastically strong Albrecht.

When gunfire disrupts the elderly Baron's story, Jackson cancels the acting troupe's contract because of the Baron. The Baron wanders backstage, where the Angel of Death tries to take his life, but Sally Salt, the young daughter of the theater company's leader, saves him and persuades him to remain living. Sally races to the wall yelling for the Turkish army to go away, and the Baron accidentally fires himself through the sky using a mortar and returns riding a cannonball, narrowly escaping the Angel of Death once again. Insisting that he alone can save the city, the Baron escapes over the city's walls in a hot air balloon constructed of women's underwear, accompanied by Sally as a stowaway.

The balloon expedition proceeds to the Moon, where the Baron, who has grown younger, finds his old associate Berthold, but angers the King of the Moon, a giant with separate minds in his head and body, who resents the Baron for his romantic past with the Queen of the Moon. The death of the King's body, and a bungled escape from the Moon, brings the trio back to the Earth, and into the volcano of the Roman god Vulcan. He hosts the group as his guests and reveals Albrecht is working as his servant. The Baron and Vulcan's wife, the Goddess Venus, attempt a romantic interlude by waltzing in the air, but this cuts short the hospitality and Vulcan expels the foursome from his kingdom into the South Seas.

Swallowed by an enormous sea creature, the travellers locate Gustavus, Adolphus, and the Baron's trusty horse Bucephalus. The Baron (who again appears elderly after being "expelled from a state of bliss") encounters the Angel of Death for the fourth time. Finally they escape by blowing "a modicum of snuff" out into the sea creature's cavernous interior, causing it to sneeze the heroes out through its whale-like blowhole. The Baron, young once again, sails to where the Turkish army is located but the Baron's associates are too elderly and tired to fight.

The Baron lectures them firmly but to no avail, and he storms off intending to surrender to the Grand Turk. His companions rally to save the Baron, and through a series of fantastic acts they rout the Turkish army away and liberate the city. During the city's celebratory parade, the Baron is shot dead by Jackson and the Angel of Death appears a final time to take the Baron's life. An emotional public funeral takes place, but the denouement reveals that this is merely the final scene of yet another story the Baron is telling to the same theater-goers in the city. The Baron calls the foregoing "only one of the many occasions on which I met my death" and closes his tale by saying "everyone who had a talent for it lived happily ever after".

The Baron leads the citizens to the city gates to reveal the city has indeed been saved, though it is unclear if the events of the battle occurred in a story or in reality. Sally asks, "It wasn't just a story, was it?" The Baron grins, rides off on Bucephalus, and then disappears.

Cast

  • John Neville as Baron Munchausen
  • Eric Idle as Berthold/Desmond
  • Sarah Polley as Sally Salt
  • Oliver Reed as Vulcan
  • Uma Thurman as Venus/Rose
  • Jonathan Pryce as The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson
  • Bill Paterson as Henry Salt
  • Charles McKeown as Adolphus/Rupert
  • Winston Dennis as Albrecht/Bill
  • Jack Purvis as Gustavus/Jeremy
  • Robin Williams (credited as "Ray D. Tutto") as The King of the Moon
  • Valentina Cortese as Queen Ariadne/Violet
  • Peter Jeffrey as Sultan Mahmud I
  • Alison Steadman as Daisy
  • Ray Cooper as Functionary
  • Don Henderson as Commander
  • Sting (cameo) as Heroic officer
  • Terry Gilliam (uncredited) as Irritating singer

Release

When The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was finally completed, David Puttnam, who had obtained the film's US distribution rights for Columbia Pictures, had been replaced as CEO of Columbia; coupled with Gilliam's prior quarrels with major studios over Brazil, the film saw only very limited distribution in the US, earning $8 million in US box office. The UK box office was £1,917,499.

In Madness and Misadventures, Robin Williams commented on the low number of release prints that Columbia produced, saying "[Puttnam's] regime was leaving, the new one was going through this, and they said, 'This was their movies, now let's do our movies!' It was a bit like the new lion that comes in and kills all the cubs from the previous man."

In a 2000 interview with IGN, Gilliam said about the contemporary press perception of the film being a financial disaster how "It seemed actually appropriate that Munchausen–the greatest liar in the world–should be a victim of some of the greatest liars in the world." He compared the film's budget problems to the even more serious problems of We're No Angels that commonly go unmentioned, and he went on to declare its difficulties as a mixture of "trade press" still being upset about Gilliam's battle with Universal over Brazil, nepotism, and an intrigue on behalf of Ray Stark successfully trying to have Puttnam removed from Columbia, coupled with the fact the studio was being sold at the time

Reception

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen has a 92% approval rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes based on 51 reviews, with a weighted average of 7.33/10. The site's consensus reads: "Bursting with Terry Gilliam's typically imaginative flourishes, this story of a possibly deranged Baron recounting his storied life is a flamboyant and witty visual treat". On Metacritic, it has a score of 69 out of 100 based on 15 critics, indicating "Generally favorable reviews".

Regarding the obvious gap between the movie's troubled production and its eventual triumph of aesthetic cinematic form on the screen, Jeff Swindoll wrote in his 2008 DVD review of Munchausen for Monsters and Critics: "For the absolute hell that the production of the film turned out to be, you really don't see any of that tension on the screen. ... the film is a fantastic, whimsical treat. ... Baron Munchausen is full of whimsy, fantasy, bright colors, and fabulous characters. None is as fantastic as the Baron himself as played, with a twinkle in his eye, by the grand John Neville."

Roger Ebert gave the film 3 out of 4 stars and found that it was "told with a cheerfulness and a light touch that never betray the time and money it took to create them", appreciating "the sly wit and satire that sneaks in here and there from director Terry Gilliam and his collaborators, who were mostly forged in the mill of Monty Python". While considering the film's special effects as "astonishing", Ebert also contended "the movie is slow to get off the ground" and "sometimes the movie fails on the basic level of making itself clear. We're not always sure who is who, how they are related, or why we should care". But "allowing for the unsuccessful passages there is a lot here to treasure", and Ebert concluded overall, "this is a vast and commodious work", "the wit and the spectacle of Baron Munchausen are considerable achievements". Additionally, Ebert considered John Neville's title role performance as appearing "sensible and matter-of-fact, as anyone would if they had spent a lifetime growing accustomed to the incredible".

The Washington Post called the film a "wondrous feat of imagination", though "except for Williams, the actors are never more than a detail in Gilliam's compositions".

Vincent Canby called the film "consistently imaginative" and a "spectacle [that] is indeed spectacular and worth the admission price and patches of boredom"; he said the "major credit must go to Giuseppe Rotunno, the cameraman; Dante Ferretti, the production designer; Richard Conway, who did the special effects, and Peerless Camera Company Ltd., responsible for the optical effects. Without them, Baron Munchausen would have looked about as big and as interesting as a 25-cent postage stamp."

Accolades

The film was nominated for four British Academy Film Awards, winning three:

  • Best Costume Design
  • Best Make Up Artist
  • Best Production Design

and losing Best Special Effects to Back to the Future Part II.

In 1990, the film was nominated for four Oscars:

  • Best Art Direction (Dante Ferretti, Francesca Lo Schiavo) (lost to Batman)
  • Best Costume Design (lost to Henry V)
  • Best Visual Effects (lost to The Abyss)
  • Best Makeup (lost to Driving Miss Daisy)

In 1991, the film was further nominated for four Saturn Awards:

  • Best Costumes (lost to Total Recall)
  • Best Fantasy Film (lost to Ghost)
  • Best Make-Up (lost to Dick Tracy)
  • Best Special Effects (lost to Back to the Future Part II)

It won the 1990 Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists Silver Ribbon in three categories:

  • Best Cinematography
  • Best Costume Design
  • Best Production Design

It was nominated in 1990 for a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation (losing to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade); actress Sarah Polley was nominated for two Young Artist Awards in the categories Best Musical or Fantasy and Best Young Actress.

Comic book adaption

  • NOW Comics: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - The Four-Part Mini-Series (1989)
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