You have to respect a filmmaker like Terry Gilliam. Despite endless studio pressure and a pile of failed projects, Gilliam is, undeniably, a masterful storyteller and artist whose cinematic technique and practical effects are limited only by his imagination. Sure, lofty ambitions throughout his career have occasionally left the director lying flat on his face, but his complete disregard for the supposed limitations of the medium is cause for excitement to say the least. Few films in Gilliam's canon embody his abandon and drive more than the 1988 fantasy, 'The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.' Panned by the industry, ignored by critics, and forgotten by theatrical audiences, the film remains a whirlwind of whimsy and fantasy that still manages to grab ahold of my imagination as strongly today as it did when I was a boy.
When a 17th century town is besieged by invading Turks, a young girl named Sally Salt (Sarah Polley) saves a legendary adventurer named Baron Munchausen (John Neville) from a grim fate at the hands of Death himself. Inspired and reinvigorated, the Baron tells Sally of his remarkable comrades: a speed demon named Berthold (Eric Idle), an eagle-eyed gunman named Adolphus (Charles McKeown), a sharp-eared, gusty lunged soldier named Gustavus (Jack Purvis), and a superhuman strongman named Albrecht (Winston Dennis). Joining the Baron on a quest to retrieve his long-lost friends, Sally embarks on a marvelous journey that leads her to the moon, the realm of gods and goddesses, and to the depths of the ocean.
'Baron Munchausen' isn't a perfect film by any means (it wouldn't be one of the first Gilliam flicks I'd recommend to those unfamiliar with the director's work). The plot tends to feel a bit unwieldy, the story suffers from tangential distractions, and the ending is an ambiguous oddity that doesn't have the same impact as darker Gilliam fare. As the third entry in Gilliam's unofficial '80s "Dreamer Trilogy," it also doesn't feature a world as wondrous as 'Time Bandits' or a cast of characters as compelling as 'Brazil.' In my opinion, 'Baron Munchausen' doesn't satisfy my Gilliam fix, only because the director set his own bar so incredibly high on previous and subsequent releases.
Don't let that scare you off though, in 'Munchausen,' Gilliam still manages to create a bizarre world that defies description. Remember when Monty Python flicks would come unhinged as Gilliam's animated sequences depicted the most insane imagery imaginable? Now picture colorful visions of that same magnitude realized through practical sets and effects... all before the advent and availability of convenient CG enhancements. Giant sea monsters, headless demigods, super-powered heroes, cannonball riders, and Venus herself spill out of Gilliam's head onto his cinematic canvas. People can criticize 'Baron Munchausen' for a lot of things, but ingenuity isn't one of them. In fact, there's hardly a scene that doesn't feature some gorgeously constructed manifestation of Gilliam's dreamscapes.
Better still, the story itself is pure Gilliam. In an age of reason and science, fantasy is being readily assaulted by the powers that be -- the real war undercutting 'Baron Munchausen' isn't between the Turks and the Europeans, but one that threatens the ideals of the human spirit. The film forces us to consider when a child becomes an adult, the moment logic begins to dictate behavior, and imagination is relegated to a hobby of the mind. As a testament to the film's thematic power, I found myself disgusted with my critical perspective, longing for the days of childhood when a film like 'Baron Munchausen' would have had me bouncing on the couch with excitement. Like every grand adventure filmmaker of old, Gilliam weaves a unique and thrilling journey that only ups the ante with each passing scene.
In the end, 'The Adventures of Baron Munchausen' burdened my critical thoughts with rather "grown-up" issues -- wobbly pacing, hit-or-miss subplots, and an all too optimistic ending that made me want to retreat into the arms of 'Brazil.' However, Gilliam didn't make the film to appeal to the adult in my brain. This film is concerned with flights of the imagination, vivid daydreams, and fantastical adventures that make viewers reflect on a simpler time, a time when they weren't distracted by mortgage payments and utility bills.
Being that it's a twenty year old film that tanked at the box office, I have to admit I didn't have high expectations for the 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer featured on the newly remastered Blu-ray edition of 'Baron Munchausen,' but to my surprise, the wizards at Sony managed to restore and revive the film's aging print, pumping color and vibrancy into almost every frame. Improving matters further, blacks are inky, contrast is strong, and shadow delineation is quite revealing. It's the increased level of detail that will immediately catch the attention of anyone who owns a standard definition copy of the film. I could count every wrinkle in John Neville's face, every stitch in his tattered jacket, and every hair on young Sarah Polley's head. In fact, the detail was so precise that I also caught previously unseen seams and oversights in the filmmakers' gorgeous sets pieces, practical effects, and prosthetic applications. There are scenes in 'Baron Munchausen' that look as if they were filmed yesterday -- the effect of this pristine image can be awe-inspiring at times.
Unfortunately, the best restorative efforts can't cover up the inadequacies of a troublesome source. Aside from the errant contrast wavering and random picture instability I've grown accustomed to with releases of this nature, the video is hindered by spiking grain fields, noisy nighttime shots, and crushed blacks. While there isn't any bothersome artifacting, banding, or edge enhancement, the picture quality tends to look uneven and inconsistent. Sequences with elaborate special effects suffer the most; an unfortunate disappointment considering the fact that the fantastical elements are the most engaging things in the film. Don't get me wrong, the transfer is a phenomenal upgrade from every SD release fans have suffered through in the past -- it just can't overcome every hurdle presented by its original source.
Like the video, 'Baron Munchausen's Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track shows its age and sounds a bit underwhelming compared to the best catalog remasters on the market. Explosions and crumbling buildings lack the LFE punch that I've come to expect from a lossless audio mix and, as it stands, low-end support is sorely neutered throughout the film. Dynamics fail to create a convincing soundfield and the rear speakers were only called upon to deliver light ambiance and to help boost environmental ambiance. I'll be shocked if anyone refers to the track as "aggressive" -- "front-heavy," "flat," and "thin" are much more accurate adjectives. Even so, the most bothersome issue I encountered involved a series of stocky pans which yanked sound from speaker to speaker. While it's obviously a direct result of the original sound design, I still found myself distracted by the sudden changes in effect positioning across the soundstage.
Still, the TrueHD track definitely offers the best 'Baron Munchausen' mix I've ever heard. Dialogue has been carefully reworked and is no longer haunted by the prioritization issues on previous releases that made a few lines inaudible. The whimsical music also receives a healthy boost and benefits from the surround presentation and the clarity of a lossless mix. Trumpets sound crystal clear and the percussion adds a welcome boom to the otherwise limp soundscape. In the end, fans will react to the audio in much the same way they will react to the video -- ideally, it could sound better, but realistically, it could also sound as bad as it has on previous SD releases.
The Blu-ray edition of 'Baron Munchausen' includes all of the special features that appear on the new 2-disc 20th Anniversary DVD. Sony has even thrown in an exclusive PiP trivia track (which I'll discuss in the next section). However, several enticing supplements from the Criterion Laserdisc release are still MIA, including additional featurettes, a script analysis, promotional posters, trailers, and TV spots. Until Criterion steps up to produce a definitive release of 'Munchausen,' this generous high-def offering from Sony will have to do.
'The Adventures of Baron Munchausen' is a fascinating film that boasts brilliant design and startling imagery -- it may not be as tight as 'Time Bandits' or as ingenious as 'Brazil,' but it's well worth two hours of your life. Sony has done a great job remastering the source for high definition and fans can finally part with their problematic DVDs. While the video and audio aren't ideal, they make 'Baron Munchausen' look and sound better than it probably ever will. Add to that a robust collection of supplements and you have a no-brainer for Gilliam fans and a worthwhile rent for newcomers.