Review by Pauline Kael
If Terry Gilliam’s special-effects extravaganza, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, puts you in a querulous, punitive frame of mind (What did he think he was doing? Couldn’t he at least have drawn us into the movie at the start?), you may be able to restore your spirits by thinking about the backers’ fury. These financiers from several countries must want to kill this guy who spent, it’s estimated, fifty million dollars. And, in a way, that has to be what he wants them to feel.
Baron Munchausen, who lived from 1720 to 1797, was a German cavalry officer who in his later days sat around telling whoppers about his exploits; he was a fibber of genius— a fabulist. When books about him began to come out, starting in the early seventeen-eighties, he became a prototype of the fabricator; the movies about him include UFA’S lavish color epic, in 1943, and the Czech animator Karel Zeman’s version, in 1962. After you see the new film, you can reconstruct what Gilliam had in mind: he identifies with Munchausen, and he sees his theme as the liar as artist. His Munchausen (John Neville) is a poet, a lover, a man of imagination. Gilliam pits him against the practical men who believe in facts and compromise and conformity; their leader is the chief official, Jackson (Jonathan Pryce), the man of reason. It doesn’t take much intuition to recognize that Jack- son, who orders the execution of a military hero (Sting) for his valor in saving lives—for being outstanding, for accomplishing too much—represents the movie moguls who have tried to trim and shape Gilliam’s work. Specifically, Jackson could be standing in for the head of Universal, whom Gilliam addressed in a full-page ad in Variety late in 1985: “Dear Sid Sheinberg—When are you going to release my film, Brazil?—Terry Gilliam.’’ While you’re watching Munchausen, the theme of the liar as artist doesn’t emerge. You’re not sure what the picture is about. Somehow, Gilliam is too distracted to indicate who the Baron is and what his legend is. For a few seconds here and there, you feel you’re in a Piranesi dream world, or you’re frolicking with ancient gods, but the entrancement never lasts long. You keep being jerked back to a nameless walled city under siege by the Turks in the late eighteenth century. The images are packed, but what’s going on in them isn’t directly involving—it’s at a remove. For long stretches, just about every shot is a special effect, and the scenes have the deadness of special effects without a clear narrative. A huge production was built on a script, by Charles McKeown and Gilliam, that seems perfunctory—an assortment of bits. This is a movie about a storyteller’s tales made by a director who shows no feeling for the magical pleasure an audience experiences at a comedy when the timing is a jamboree, the episodes have a dramatic shape, and everything dovetails in a perfect surprise. The elements are here for a fantasy on the order of The Wizard of Oz and Pinocchio and the 1940 Thief of Bagdad, but the conflict—the definition—is missing. So is the innocence. In some area of themselves, Disney and those who made the other children’s classics (and Spielberg, who made E.T.) never grew up. Gilliam, whose style is bad-boy antic and frenzied, may not have grown up, either (he puts sappy, unfunny wigs on people), but he seems to deny himself a child’s sense of wonder. This movie isn’t for kids.
It should be, though. The Baron, who assesses the threat of the Turks by riding a cannonball over the battlefield, tells the besieged townspeople that he can save the city if only he can locate his four “extraordinary servants,” who were dispersed after the film’s first adventure, in the Turkish sultan’s palace. The mighty four are the world’s fastest runner (Eric Idle), the world’s strongest man (Winston Dennis), the man who can see the farthest (McKeown), and the man who can blow’ hurricane winds (Jack Purvis). Searching for the four, the Baron travels in a balloon made of women’s silk knickers; he is accompanied by a stowaway, the ten-year- old Sally (Sarah Polley), who’s part of a troupe of actors. The Baron and Sally voyage to a city on the moon; they fall into the fire god Vulcan’s foundry inside the belching Mt. Etna; they’re swallowed by a sea dragon. And they find the four—now aged—prodigies, who have all lost their powers. But Gilliam didn’t bother to give these prodigies individual introductions when we first met them, and we hardly seem meant to care that they are reunited with the Baron and then regain their gifts. We aren’t asked to be sad for them or happy for them, either. The story is almost devoid of emotional shading.
Except for Eric Idle, who wears shackles and weights to keep himself on the ground when he isn’t whizzing by in a Road Runner routine, the four are almost faceless. Though the idea of their looking old in defeat and young in victory has juicy possibilities, it doesn’t come to much. That’s the case with John Neville’s perpetually rejuvenated Baron, too. The movie wants us to see his renewed youth as his reward for believing in fantasy, but there’s no magic in his cycles of shrivelling and freshening. Neville’s courtly performance seems just what was wanted of him, and yet there’s nothing elating in it, no zest. The conception verges on shaggy-dog preciousness.
This movie is short on characterization and personality. Whenever a high-energy performer, such as Robin Williams, as the King of the Moon, or Oliver Reed, as the rampaging Vulcan, has a chance to dominate the screen, it’s like a reprieve. When Vulcan sees the Baron flirting with his wife, Venus (Uma Thurman), the steam that comes out of his ears has a burlesque-show kick to it. It hits the spot. That can’t be said of anything that’s done by the horses, the elephants, the thousands of soldiers, or the ladies of the sultan’s harem. At a press conference that Terry Gilliam gave when Brazil was finally released here, he said, “I like working within limitations on the budget of a film, so that I can’t have everything I want. Say, if we were making Holy Grail again, and we had all the money we wanted, we would have had real horses, we wouldn’t have had coconuts. I think, given enough money and time, I could be really mediocre.” No coconuts here.
What saves Munchausen from mediocrity is that you sense that Gilliam is brainstorming. He goes hippety-hoppety all over the place. The picture is too dry and too busy to be considered merely mediocre. And he has his gifts. He retains an edge of Monty Python’s cranky, warped slapstick, and he has a painter’s eye (so does Michael Cimino). There are fleeting camera moves with real surprise in them, like one toward the end when the camera pulls back from the site of a scheduled beheading and rushes through the crowd. In the red-tinted volcano scenes, Vulcan and his giants (who— in a neat quirky touch—turn out to be shorter than the Baron) are marvellously hairy and bestial. There are also scenes that are near-inspired, like the sight of the Baron and Venus dancing in the air high above cascading waterfalls in an immense, deep-in-the-earth ballroom; but a bit of conviction—of ardor and awe—is missing. Gilliam isn’t a poet. We perceive the romantic idea; we don’t really feel it. And when the Baron is in the belly of the sea monster, with ships of many nations marooned there, and the sailors are passing their time playing cards, Gilliam leaves out the hypnotic, surreal element that would make the vision indelible.
Maybe the reason we don’t feel that the Baron is a rhapsodist, an artistic figure, or that the ending represents the triumph of the poetic imagination, is that Gilliam isn’t a lyrical director. It’s not just that he’s disjointed and weak as a storyteller, and that he has a defective sense of rhythm. It’s that his gifts—his gagster’s prankishness and his sense of beauty—don’t harmonize. At least, they don’t here. It’s as if he rejected the effort needed to make a sequence flow. He throws things together, trashing his own inspirations. The city on the moon that Dante Ferretti has designed and the big, airy, creamy scenes that Giuseppe Rotunno has lighted don’t stay in the memory; they’re static and then they’re gone. Gilliam uses banal symphonic music over the battle scenes to give them the illusion of movement. And the climax of the film—in which the Baron demonstrates that you merely have to believe in imagination to make the Turkish siege disappear—is an inept cheat, lacking even the logic of a dream.
It’s my impression that Gilliam was temperamentally more in tune with the retro-futurist nightmare of Brazil and its chaotic pop version of Kafka and Orwell. What’s called for here is comic romanticism; that’s what the sets are designed for—they’re like architectural drawings made in a dream. And the quixotic Baron, a ladies’ man, hands red roses to each new woman he meets and is in love with them all. He’s in love with exploring; he’s fighting off death because there’s more he wants to see. Gilliam limits him by trying to pin him down as the opponent of the “man of reason’’— a term that has no contemporary point. (We don’t really believe in the man of reason in that sense anymore.) What Gilliam seems to have in mind is the businessman who looks at the figures Gilliam is piling up, and pulls the rug out from under him—the materialist who, in Gilliam’s view, doesn’t have the imagination to believe in his vision and support it all the way. He’s made a fifty-million-dollar movie about why he can’t get along with the men who back movies. (It’s because he makes fifty-million-dollar movies about why he can’t get along with the men who back movies.) Clearly, he feels thwarted and trapped: the film features a blind executioner and is full of cages and other images of imprisonment, such as the monster’s belly and the walled city itself.
The closest Gilliam comes to coconuts here is in the rolling, manually operated ocean waves and the other curvy, ruffled stage effects of Sally’s theatre company, before the play that’s being performed (a play about Munchausen) opens out to show the gigantic scale that movies make possible. This opening out has dazzling potentialities, because instead of giving us “nature” he gives us tricky false perspectives and enormous painted sets. There’s something of Méliès in this scenic approach, and something of Fritz Lang, too. And Gilliam displays each new set proudly, with a flourish. But it’s not enough to have great design and effects—you must know what to do with them. (Those who say that the fifty million is all on the screen are giving the director a dubious compliment.) In Brazil Gilliam attacked reality; he does it again here. But at some point reality bites you on the nose.
The New Yorker, April 3, 1989