The Adventures of
Baron Munchausen

directed by Terry Gilliam
(Columbia Pictures, 1989)

The best fairy tales have as many -- if not even more -- lessons for adults as they do for kids. A great example is The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, directed by former Monty Pythonite Terry Gilliam.

Mining a rarely tapped vein of German fantasy lore, the movie brings to life its unlikely hero in the form of a middle-aged, at times elderly, German nobleman. Munchausen wanders the world -- and occasionally places above and below -- seeking outrageous adventures with his marvelous companions: Albrecht, the strongest man alive; Berthold, the fastest man alive; Adolphus, who has amazing vision; and Gustavus, who has incredible hearing and powerful lungs.

In the movie, an elderly Munchausen disrupts a theatrical production of his adventures in a 17th century city under siege by invading Turks. Munchausen's efforts to set the record straight are in turn disrupted by a cannon assault, and his attempt to quietly die in the theater's ruins are interrupted by Sally Salt (Sarah Polley), a small girl with a huge heap of stubborn. Sally is possibly the only person around who believes Munchausen is real, and her belief is impetus enough for the baron to dispense with dying long enough to try and save the town.

Setting off with stowaway Sally in a prop ship floating on a current of hot underthings, Munchausen finds his missing friends and saves the town as promised after some eye-popping adventures -- with a few twists and surprises on the way.

John Neville is perfect as the dashing, resourceful and exceptionally lucky Baron Munchausen. In both the younger and older incarnations, he glows with the air of a legend come to life, straight from a storybook wonderland. As his older self, he exudes curmudgeonly bitterness over this new Age of Reason which is eroding his tales. The world, he says, "is made of laws now. Laws of hydraulics, laws of social dynamics, laws of this, that and the other. No place for three-legged cyclops in the South Seas. No place for cucumber trees and oceans of wine. No place for me."

Ah, but there is. Sometimes, the world just needs reminding.

Munchausen's companions are equally well-cast. The best of them is fleet-footed Berthold, played by a burly thighed Eric Idle (like Gilliam, a Python alumnus). Rounding out the crew are Winston Dennis as Albrecht, Charles McKeown as Adolphus and Jack Purvis as Gustavus.

Along the way of their adventures, they meet the jealous god Vulcan (Oliver Reed), the beautiful goddess Venus (Uma Thurman), and the heads and bodies of the king and queen of the moon (an uncredited Robin Williams and Valentina Cortese). Death (a redhead, it turns out) shows up on occasion to menace the baron at every opportunity. And Jonathan Pryce is wonderfully oily as the city administrator who runs a losing, but efficient, war. Look also for a brief appearance by Sting as a doomed hero.

Meanwhile, Munchausen rides cannon balls, uses snuff to defeat a massive sea beast, dances on air, sails to the moon and generally cheats death. Most of the time. But always with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye, like any good, stalwart hero should. If you're big on realism, pass this one by. But if you want to exercise your sense of wonder, pick up The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Please, believe he's real or the town is lost.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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