The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is like a geek version of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books. It is designed to provide comfort to those who delight in imagination and flights of fancy. It paints in broad strokes of vivid color a world in which rascally heroes laugh, love, and yearn to regain youth, though the presence of the character of Sally proves to the audience that youth is as perennial as grass. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is not made for intellectual dissection; in fact, it mocks the rational, turning the Enlightenment age of history in which it is set into an absurd parody of the twentieth century in which it was filmed. Still, despite his plea of “No doctors!”, I will attempt to dissect the good Baron. What makes The Adventures of Baron Munchausen great?
This film simply would not work if Gilliam and the rest of his creative team did not have diamond-brilliant senses of creativity. If this cry on behalf of the irrational were matched with fleshed-out explanations and logical structure, the clash between form and content would sink the picture. Instead, we get trips to the moon and oceans that meet at the center of the world and hair-ropes that can be cut at the top without falling until the oddity is commented upon. I will freely admit, I do not have the vision for this sort of thing. As the narrator of The Little Prince asserts when confronted with his inability to know from looking at a picture of a box what the sheep inside is doing, I guess I’ve gotten a bit like the grownups.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is not cryptic. This is not David Lynch territory, where the viewer is left confused, alone, and shiveringly vulnerable by the side of the lost highway. Exactly as much explanation as is needed for the story is provided. The explanation provided may leave the viewer guffawing and slapping their knee and/or forehead – but it’s there. If you have the capacity to suspend your disbelief, the old archetype of the Hero’s Journey will never let you down. It has the undeniable ring of emotional logic.
The central conflict of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is, according to Psych 101 classes, as old as the human mind as we currently know it: Eros vs. Thanatos, or, Sex vs. Death. When the Baron, in his decrepit state, seeks out death world-wearily, it is the prospect of “beautiful ladies” that he cannot deny and still holds interest for him. The catch is, our heroine, Sally, is too young to understand either the attraction of sex (making the joke of the King of the Moon tickling the Queen’s feet possible) or the permanence of death (hence going to the embattled city’s wall and throwing stones at the invading Turks seems like a perfectly understandable course of action for her). So a secondary theme comes into play: call it Youth vs. Adulthood, or perhaps, Innocence vs. Wisdom.
I am not sure how long ago I first watched The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. I want to say it was right around the time the film was released, in 1988, though I didn’t watch it in the theater. At any rate, I can’t have been much older as a viewer than Sally is as a character (I was certainly too young to care about Uma Thurman’s plunging neckline during her performance as Venus!). While I enjoyed it then, found it memorable, and would have considered it a good film, it is in watching the film with adult eyes that it becomes great. In that respect, I must again draw a connection to The Little Prince. It is only after the viewer has had experience with the phenomena being described in this type of art that the chord of recognition can be struck, and the work be appreciated. This particular breed of allegory is of limited use as a caution or warning to the unwary, and frequently is not even entertaining (I’ve heard at least one person who read The Little Prince as a child evaluate it as “weird” based on that reading). The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’s feverish zaniness (Robin Williams was the perfect choice for the King of the Moon, he provides just the right touch of lunacy for the part) can still entertain the kiddies, but it’s their parents who will chuckle contentedly at the one-liners and set-ups.
I found it remarkable just how well the special effects for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen have held up despite advances in the industry over the past 26 years. The skeletal Angel of Death was clearly not done with CGI. When I was young, it scared me well enough. This playthrough, I wasn’t scared a jot, but I didn’t need to be. The point of the film when seen by adult eyes is not to be scared, even when there is reason to be. Baron Munchausen is a hero who can walk straight into leveled guns and come out unscathed, or be struck down by a primitive sniper only to reveal that at some point, the film became a story-within-a-story, and when you ask the real Baron to please stand up, you should discover that you have lifted yourself onto your feet. In this film, reason is the enemy, so being scared when there is reason to be scared lets the enemy win. It is enough to know that there is an Angel of Death with a skull for a head, a cloak and a scythe. All the elements are there. The viewer can choose to breathe life into them or not.
I would not recommend The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to someone who does not have a good imagination. That is, above all else, the prerequisite for enjoying this film. Imagination is critical, but creativity is not; Gilliam and his team will supply you with all the pieces you need, all the moving parts, all the tools, all the adhesives, and the workspace. But only your imagination will make this paper dragon fly off into the marmalade sunset while marzipan harpies caw at the quartzy stars. If you can’t dream, don’t bother with this romp.
Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5.