(1989)3.5Nathan SouthernThe fabled Baron von Munchausen appeared in a number of live-action and animated screen incarnations prior to 1989, including Josef von Baky's 1943 UFA-funded, Goebbels-produced Munchausen. Yet Terry Gilliam bravely resisted the temptation to rework any of those prior screen versions. Instead, his film is twofold. On the most rudimentary level, he uses the Munchausen stories as a kind of loose framework on which to hang an assortment of the most audacious visual fireworks ever to illuminate the silver screen. And on that basis, the work is truly extraordinary, bringing to light effects unlike any created before or since in a Western feature, which defy all boundaries of form, dimension, and logic. Consequently, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen -- like Ray Harryhausen's 7th Voyage of Sinbad 30 years prior -- held captive the imaginations of those viewers who were fortunate enough to catch this film as children, during its initial theatrical run. From the "animated constellations" that swirl and gyrate through the celestial fabric, to the scythe-wielding Grim Reaper who bursts forth from an inert stone statue, sending stone shards flaying off omnidirectionally, to the glimpse of a white sand-filled sea of tranquility with the half-buried stone head of some obscure lunar monarch in the foreground, Gilliam plunges breathlessly and rapturously into a preadolescent visual dreamscape. If the film only functioned as a collection of visual pyrotechnics (as many assumed), it would indeed be disappointing; instead, Gilliam intuitively plunges deeper, and the film gains longevity from its thematic level.
With Baron, Gilliam completed a planned screen trilogy on the theme of imagination as it triumphs over stiff-necked reason and logic. This thematic triumvirate began some eight years prior with Time Bandits, continued with 1985's only fitfully successful but equally ambitious sci-fi tragicomedy Brazil, and wraps with Baron. And that theme is the glue that holds this massively overscaled, freewheeling production together, ingeniously justifying every one of Gilliam's deliberate logical and temporal lapses (particularly in the confusing denouement). With -- as an added bonus -- the one-of-a-kind Pythonesque humor that flavors the majority of Gilliam's screen works providing much-needed lunacy and comic relief, the film earns its right to masterpiece status. Unfortunately, Western audiences did not agree. This outrageously expensive film (presumably greenlit during David Puttnam's tenure at Columbia) confounded many American viewers and slipped by others, bringing untold financial loss for the studio. Gilliam survived, however, rebounding to box-office gold two and a half years later, with the Christmas 1991 blockbuster The Fisher King.