Terry Gilliam’s “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” begins on a Wednesday in the Age of Reason in a bombed-out, anonymous French city. It feels like the French Revolution, but the accents are all British and the enemy is the formidable Turkish army – cannons, elephants and the whole ensemble.
For loyal actors and their audiences, the show must go on. At a small playhouse in the heart of the enemy bombardment, a retelling of the ludicrously mythological life of Baron Munchausen is underway. That is, until the real Baron Munchausen (John Neville) – a crotchety old man with cane and sword – bursts in, and he’s pissed.
“I started this war,” he shouts at the disbelieving audience, “and I am going to end it.”
In one of the greatest scene changes in memory, the actors on stage amid a Turkish set are suddenly in the Sultan’s palace. Its gaudiness and hyper-exaggerated props are straight out of the 18th century. The Sultan and the Baron love a good wager almost as much as a good bottle of wine. The two bet that if Baron can procure the best white wine in the world from Vienna in under an hour, he and the strongest man he can find can take what they please from the Sultan’s treasury. If not, off with the Baron’s head.
Here we are introduced to the Baron’s trusty coterie of sidekicks with super abilities. Eric Idle is the nimble footed Berthold – a man so fast he has to walk around with shackles. The Baron sends him speeding into the countryside to fetch the bottle. While he waits, the Sultan entertains him with a Baroque opera he’s written. He plays a pipe organ with a twist: prisoners trapped inside are stabbed with spears to add a little pizzazz to the composition. When Berthold barely makes it back in time, the Baron summons his strong man, Albrect, and takes him to the treasury. Albrect, of course, is actually the world’s strongest man, placing the entire treasury on his shoulders. The Sultan is inflamed with rage, and thus war ensues.
If this seems over the top, it should. The film is at once a superb children’s tale of fantasy, a wry political critique and an allegory of logic versus imagination.
The film snaps back to the theater. Cannon is falling at a steady pace, prompting the audience to leave. The Baron is heartbroken and looks for a place to die. Luckily the vivaciously cute Sally (Sarah Polley) saves the Baron from the clutches of the angel of death. His vigor is rejuvenated by her determination, and he sets off with her to find his friends and save the town. He escapes the clutches of the government and the Turkish army by fashioning a hot air balloon out of knickers – obviously.
Visually the film is a masterpiece, akin to “Pan’s Labyrinth.” It received Oscar nominations for art direction, set decoration, costume design, visual effects and makeup. Each set, from the Sultan’s palace to the belly of a leviathan to the kingdom on the moon, is executed with perfection.
The length of the film is a delicious mockery of British nobility (even the Sultan is British), and while the Baron is the epitome of old-money-meets-James Bond, his charm supersedes his stereotypes.
The humor is also tongue in cheek. At the film’s opening, the French (British?) soldiers aren’t fighting because apparently there’s no fighting allowed on Wednesdays. The King of the Moon (a brilliant Robin Williams) and his wife have detachable heads which are always trying to escape their corporeal prisons in favor of an intellectual existence.
The line between the Baron recounting his adventures and the real world blurs to the point that the end of his story coincides with the end of the real war – a stunning, masterful battle sequence.
“The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” is a epic movie for an elementary school sick day, a high school reefer session and an adult escape. Watching it once is never enough, but the Baron’s ending line will stick with you from the first: “And those, who had a knack for it, lived happily ever after.”