Terry Gilliam's ponderous fantasy Baron Munchausen doth collapse
Suggested headline: Terry Gilliam's BARON MUNCHAUSEN: The collapse of fantasy
OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN
Directed by Terry Gilliam.
Screenplay by Charles McKeown and
Starring John Neville and Sarah Polley.
Now playing at the Harvard Square and
By MANAVENDRA K. THAKUR
ALL OF THE QUALITIES THAT MADE Terry Gilliam's previous two films notable are plainly visible in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, but something must have gone terribly wrong while Gilliam was making it. Instead of brilliantly manipulating the distinction between dreams and reality, instead of confronting viewers with images packed with overwhelming detail in the best Mad Magazine tradition,NOTE: Gilliam himself has said he was inspired by Mad Magazine, so that's why I'm using this the film merely piles one fantastic scene on top of another, succeeding mainly in proving that fantasy too can collapse under its own weight.
In this film, Gilliam addresses the same close-minded worship of rationality that he attacked in Time Bandits (1981) and Brazil (1985). Time Bandits succeeded because its characters tumbled from one adventure to the next with little sense of any overriding goal or reason. Brazil was more structured, but Gilliam charged his creative talents to the fullest to prevent anyone, including the characters, from predicting where the film's jolting turns and twists would lead.
In The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, however, Gilliam hobbles himself right from the beginning by forcing his characters to work toward the ultimate goal of rescuing a city besieged by some angry Turks. Consequently, when Baron Munchausen (John Neville) flies off in a balloon made of women's knickers to enlist his friends in the fight to save the city, Gilliam has little choice than to "accidently" introduce another comrade at each stop along the way. Once this plot device becomes apparent, the film quickly degenerates into an arduous waiting game to see what will happen once the group is finally reunited. By creating this waiting game, Gilliam not only undermines the potential of his fantasy sequences but makes his film downright tedious at times.
To be sure, Gilliam plops Munchausen and his merry men into some wonderful and fantastic worlds. Two sequences that particularly stand out are the celestial coordinates surrounding the moon and the lyrically photographed birth of Venus (based on the famous Botticelli painting of 1482). Gilliam's visual sensibilities are matched only by his awareness of the vast possibilities of sound and stereo separation, and Michael Kamen's score is as least as good as his excellent score for Brazil. Nevertheless, the obvious care and technical wizardry that has gone into these moments cannot substitute for the element of unpredictability that the film so badly needs.
The fantasy sequences might have worked better if it were possible to forget the unnecessary purpose imposed on them. But one can't do this because of the presence of Sally Salt (Sarah Polley), a young girl who stows away on the Baron's balloon and follows him around. Her presence is a major mistake because her only function is to constantly nag the Baron to get on with his promised rescue of the city. "We'll be late, we have to get back" she exclaims over and over, and it is not until after the climactic battle that she finally opens her eyes wide and realizes that "It wasn't just a story, was it?" Bravo for her, but bully for the audience, which knew this all along. Her presence is the final confirmation that the film's plot structure is really nothing more than an excuse, and a particularly lame one at that, for Gilliam to indulge in his penchant for fantasy.
All of these problems could easily have been avoided if Gilliam had simply began the film with the Baron already on his quest to round up his men. That way the fantastic scenes could have jumped from one to another as they did in Time Bandits, the underlying theme of rescuing the city could have unfolded as a surprise, and the climactic battle with the Turks would have been more satisfying than it currently is. Perhaps Gilliam didn't think of this simple fix because he got caught up in massive cost overruns and delays. Perhaps he did not want to duplicate his work in Time Bandits. Nonetheless, had Gilliam taken this track, the resulting film would have been more successful than his current offering.
Gilliam likes to refer to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen as "the triumph of fantasy" as well as the final film of a trilogy (the other two films being, of course, Time Bandits and Brazil). Unfortunately, watching Gilliam hiccup through this film leaves no doubt that it is the weakest of the three. Because of his previous successes, though, one can yet hope that Gilliam will return to top form by the time he makes his next film. It would be a shame indeed if Brazil proves to be the sole lasting masterpiece of Gilliam's career.