The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
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The boundless imagination of Terry Gilliam yields a dazzling fantasy of epic proportions. Inspired by the extravagant exploits of the fabled Baron Munchausen, this spectacle—born of a famously turbulent production—follows the whimsical eighteenth-century nobleman (John Neville) as he embarks on an outlandish quest that takes him from faraway lands to the moon to the belly of a sea monster and beyond, meanwhile waging battle against a vengeful sultan and the tyranny of logic. Packed frame to frame with special effects, mischievous wit, and colorful performances—including a young Sarah Polley as the Baron’s no-nonsense sidekick—the Oscar-nominated The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a lavish celebration of the triumph of make-believe over reality.
Terry Gilliam’s whimsical The Adventures of Baron Munchausen receives an all-new 4K UHD special edition from The Criterion Collection. Delivered on a triple-layer disc, the film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 with a 2160p/24hz ultra high-definition encode and Dolby Vision. The master comes from a new 4K restoration scanned from the 35mm original camera negative. Two standard dual-layer Blu-ray discs are also included, one featuring a 1080p high-definition presentation of the film and the other the release’s video extras.
To the surprise of no one, I’m sure, Gilliam’s busy and intricate fantasy is more than suited for the format, the film looking as lively and vibrant as it ever has. One of the more staggering improvements to be found (that also rings true for the standard Blu-ray edition) is in the area of colors. Looking back at the Sony Blu-ray from 2008, the colors look muted and flat compared to this edition, which looks far more vibrant. I was especially thrilled with the reds and the shades found within them, whether in the Baron’s jacket or Vulcan’s lair.
Detail levels are also more substantial, the older edition’s presentation looking to have been scrubbed and managed a bit. Thanks to a cleaner scan and something closer to a “hands-off” approach when it comes to grain management, the finer details do leap off of the screen, from all those fine textures on the costumes and props to stray hairs and the pores on the actors’ faces. The sharper grain also lends a cleaner film texture to the presentation. Still, as lovely as this is, it can vary depending on how one watches the film. The base presentation and the HDR10 layer can look buzzy, as shown in the SDR screen grabs. Fortunately, it’s not that large an issue in motion, but it can be noticeable in places, possibly at its worst during the fish sequence near the end.
Dolby Vision does end up straightening this up, though, and the grain looks much cleaner during these moments when enabled. It also aids the image in other areas like colors and black levels, which, as noted, already look pretty good to begin with. Blacks, reds, and oranges also mix nicely, as evidenced in Vulcan’s lair, with blocky patterns never raising their ugly head. Dolby Vision also does a fantastic job of rendering the shadows in darker scenes, exposing more detail within them and leading to several striking moments throughout the film, with the ballroom sequence possibly being the most impressive. During this sequence, the shadows in the background look gorgeous, all of the finer intricacies in the setting remaining clear, but the scene is further enhanced by how the light reflects off of fountains in the foreground. It’s a striking sequence and nicely shows off the advantages of the wider contrast.
The restoration has also cleaned things up wonderfully, with only a few minor marks remaining. Scenes incorporating optical effects can look slightly off, but that’s to be expected. Altogether, a few issues aside, it’s a beautiful-looking presentation and a significant upgrade over Sony’s previous disc.
Criterion presents the film’s 5.1 surround soundtrack in DTS-HD MA. Despite the film’s adventure and fantasy elements, I found the presentation surprisingly front-heavy, with most effects focusing on the fronts. The surrounds carry some weight during the film’s more action-packed sequences and the loftier moments of Michael Kamen’s score, but I can’t say I noticed any distinguishable splits. On the other hand, dynamic range is extensive, the explosions highlighting the louder moments. Voices are also lively and clear, and dialogue is easy to hear throughout (admittedly, I sometimes find it hard to hear dialogue in Giliam's films). Considering the subject matter, I expected a bit more, but it’s still an effective presentation.
Criterion previously released the film on LaserDisc back in 1992, packing it with a good amount of material, including an exclusive audio commentary featuring director Terry Gilliam. Some of that material does make it over to this release in one form or another, though most disappointingly, the track isn’t one of the things to make it. Instead, Criterion ports over the 2008 commentary recorded by Sony for their special edition featuring Gilliam alongside co-writer Charles McKeown. It’s an entertaining track, yet it lacks the manic energy usually present in Gilliam’s tracks. At the very least, the two still do a commendable job covering the film’s production, with a good amount of it focusing on writing the script. Discussion around the script naturally segues to the original stories and what interested Gilliam in making a new adaptation before things veer off to the more technical details of the production and some of the “issues” that came up. Gilliam also talks about the actors, admiring a number of their performances (he’s especially taken by Oliver Reed’s comedic one), and he clearly couldn’t be more pleased with himself around finding Polley and getting Robin Williams.
It's a good commentary with a few chuckles to be had as the two throw barbs around, but it feels pretty laid back for a Gilliam track. I haven’t listened to Criterion’s original LaserDisc commentary, so I can’t say if it’s more similar to what I would have expected. I’m sure a lot of the same material is covered there, but I still feel a little disappointed they didn’t include it, if only for posterity’s sake.
There are no other features to be found on the 4K disc. The release also includes two standard Blu-ray discs. The first dual-layer disc contains a standard high-definition presentation of the film and the Gilliam/McKeown commentary. The second dual-layer disc consists of all the video features, including the 72-minute documentary The Madness and Misadventure of “Munchausen,” initially produced for Sony’s 2008 edition. Even though the commentary managed to do a commendable job covering the film’s troubled production, the documentary digs even further into it, getting perspectives from both Gilliam and McKeown yet again. Also gathered are producers Steve Abbott and Thomas Schuhly, production designer Dante Ferretti, former president of Columbia Pictures David Picker, and actors John Neville, Sarah Polley, Eric Idle, Jonathan Pryce, Bill Paterson, and even Robin Williams.
The documentary is divided into three sections covering specific production periods; the first part focuses on the script's development, financing, and casting. In this section, the early signs of a troubled production were planted after producer Arnon Milchan—who previously worked with Gilliam on Brazil—dropped out due to too many production companies coming in, including a new one established by another former Python members. Budget concerns were already in play, and though Gilliam and others insist that the budget was clear from the outset, it sounds as though new management coming into Columbia Pictures with a desire to put their imprint on projects early on started fighting over that.
Participants then provide detail about the production and filming (found in the second part), which proved to be especially dangerous for the cast (Polley has talked about this more recently, but she and Idle already get into all of that in this piece). Costs did get a bit out of control after some unforeseen events and what sounds like (to me, at least) grifting by locals. This led Gilliam to rethink some sequences, like the trip to the moon, which was almost cut out. To keep costs down, he had to bypass actual sets and use giant paintings and backgrounds instead, though it was felt it worked out better, calling back to the stage sequences that open the film.
Some other interesting details include how Williams came to be involved (Sean Connery was initially cast but dropped out when the character was changed) and how the production shut down once they ran out of money. Gilliam was able to get production going again though it proved all for naught: the studio dumped the film and then quickly blamed Gilliam for the mess, all covered in the third part of the documentary.
The film’s production is reasonably infamous, almost rivaling Brazil’s. However, I think the documentary adequately paints how things were overblown by the press and the studio’s new management. It also keeps things fair by pointing out the mismanagements on the side of Gilliam and the production. It’s all rather fascinating, and if one hasn’t viewed it yet, it’s worth diving into.
Following this is then a 16-minute featurette on the film’s special effects, which appears to be constructed from the material Criterion created for their LaserDisc edition with newly recorded narration by Gilliam. Some footage around models and puppets proves interesting, with comparisons to the finished product edited in (taken from the new restoration), and we get to see the layering involved in some of the film’s optical tricks (Idle’s character running, for example). Unsurprisingly, the feature showcases a lot of footage around Williams’ appearance, showing more ad-libs from the actor. In all, it’s a nicely constructed segment; the only shame is that the footage is in a low resolution due to the LaserDisc source.
There are then four deleted scenes, all running around a minute each, including what amounts to an alternate opening, an extended bit around the “mutiny” on stage, an extra bit where the rules of warfare are explained, and then an extended sequence in the giant fish where Gilliam makes an appearance. Gilliam also provides an optional commentary for each scene, explaining why they were cut. It ultimately comes down to Gilliam just wanting to pick up the pace and doesn’t sound related to him being forced to cut the film down by the studio (and I’m not sure where that material has gone).
Also carried over from the Sony edition is a collection of storyboards for unfilmed scenes, starting with a quick intro by the director. It sounds as though these sequences were abandoned due to the budget cuts, though Gilliam admits when it comes to the extended moon sequence, he has no idea how he would have been able to film it (he calls the whole sequence “madness”). In an excellent (and somewhat amusing) little touch, both Gilliam and McKeown do voice-over reenactments by voicing the characters while offering descriptions of the action. Portions are also cut to the finished film to give an idea of the original intention. One unfilmed sequence involving a horse splitting in two, depicted in the original stories, was why Gilliam wanted to do the film. Sadly, he never got to do it. Altogether the feature runs for about 30 minutes.
The disc then features a section on the film’s marketing, which proved especially difficult in the States due to American audiences not being all that familiar with the character, and it’s clear from everything made available here Columbia had no idea what to do with it. The material included first consists of a trailer and two featurettes from the time: the 4-minute Meet Baron Munchausen and the 8-minute production featurette. The latter is about what you expect, interviews with cast and crew featuring nothing of real substance. The former proves a little more interesting and is a promotional piece featuring Gilliam talking directly to the camera (targeted at theater owners, I assume), explaining what the film is about. Humorously, due to the actor’s contract (he was doing the movie as a favor, and he didn’t want his name used for promotional purposes), Robin Williams’ name is bleeped out.
The best material to be found in this section, though, are newly filmed segments around the film’s preview cards and the taglines that Columbia came up with, running 12 minutes and 4 minutes, respectively. Gilliam is incredibly annoyed by the slogans, pointing out how the studio tried to be Pythonesque in its failed deliveries. But the real gem here is Gilliam reading off and responding to the comment cards from a preview screening, Gilliam occasionally in awe at some of the put-downs lobbed at his film. What I found especially impressive is how many people at the preview were unbelievably mad at the fact Sting only had a walk-on, with one comment card saying that all the scenes without Sting essentially sucked. In an amusing little touch, when Sting is referred to as “a god” in one comment card, Criterion plasters Sting’s thong photo from Dune up on the screen as though they’re trying to prove the commenter’s point. Both of these segments prove to be incredibly funny and one of the best features.
In a wonderful addition the disc then includes a new 17-minute visual essay by David Cairns entitled The Astonishing (and Really True) History of Baron Munchausen, covering the history of the man and the character borne from him through various forms of media. He first talks about the actual Baron, Hieronymus Carl Friedrich von Münchhausen, and the reason behind the outlandish stories he would share (they were spoofs of war stories). He then delves into the books and knock-offs that would come out (with fantastic artwork) before getting into various film adaptations, starting with those in the silent era through to Karel Zeman’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. Even a World War II-era German adaptation comes up, commissioned by Goebbels himself despite what Cairns feels to be a clear anti-Nazi message. The background of the stories and the actual Baron is brought up in the other features but rarely expanded upon, so Cairns’ essay—beautifully put together with some fun animations to highlight points—proves most welcome.
Criterion next digs up an excellent profile on the director from a 1991 episode of The South Bank Show, running 47 minutes. It starts covering his Monty Python days before getting into his feature film work from The Holy Grail and Jabberwocky to The Fisher King, which was released around the time this program first aired. Gilliam also sits for an interview where he discusses his work, even recounting his animation work and then his experience with Baron Munchausen, which he says “shattered” him. That experience ultimately made him make a smaller film like The Fisher King. He also briefly tours his collection of props from his films, including the flying Sam Lowry model from Brazil. It’s an excellent overview of his work (up to 1991, mind you), packing a lot of material into its short runtime.
And finally, the disc closes off with Gilliam’s 1974 short film, Miracle of Flight, done in his cut-out animation style and familiar sense of humor. In a pleasant little surprise, it also looks to come from a decent scan. Michael Koresky then provides a short appreciation for the film in the included insert. Sadly, Criterion doesn’t package the release in a lavish digipak or anything of the sort: the three discs and insert are held in a standard 3-disc Scanavo case.
I’m still unsure why Criterion didn’t carry over their LaserDisc track, but forgetting that they have still put together a fantastic set of features for the film, porting over Sony’s material and some of their LaserDisc features, before throwing in some great archival material and some fun new inclusions. It should keep fans busy.
Criterion's new special edition loads on several excellent and fun features and sports a gorgeous looking 4K presentation.