As the Blu-ray format continues to introduce new features such as BD-Live, Picture-in-Picture and D-Box Motion Code support, it’s funny to see so many older movies appear in high definition. Films like Commando and Predator make sense on Blu-ray, with their action-packed scenes and cult-like followings, but quirkier titles seem a bit less obvious. Case in point: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a Terry Gilliam film with Eric Idle, a cameo by Robin Williams and Uma Thurman topless making her theatrical debut.
What makes The Adventures of Baron Munchausen a worthy entrant into the Blu-ray scene? For one, it’s a remarkably artistic film, both in its plot and its sets, the latter of which are carried over wonderfully into the Blu-ray menus. For another, it’s the latest Sony Blu-ray release connected to the Monty Python crew (Gilliam and Idle). But most important, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen tells a story that’s startlingly relevant in world obsessed with war and nothing but cold, hard facts. And even 19 years after its theatrical release, that’s a story worth telling.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen follows the good Baron himself, a decrepit old man whose fantastical experiences end up more truthful than one might think. After invading a theatrical production based on his own “lore,” the Baron informs the audience that he is in fact the one responsible for the Turks’ all-to-real attack on British forces, and that he alone is the one who can stop it. To do so, he needs not only to find his long-lost crew, but to convince the world that his larger-than-life stories are true.
Yet far from being just a “Big Fish” clone, in which the father’s yarns were based on reality, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen actually does show the Baron traveling to the moon to meet the king of all cosmos (Robin Williams). He actually does get swallowed by a whale. He actually does come face-to-face with the grim reaper, and he actually does become younger with each passing day of his adventure. The Baron’s challenge, it seems, aside from stopping what turns out to be a farcical war, is to persuade the world that people need not fear imagination, but embrace and promote it. By the end of the movie he achieves just that, marking the end of his proverbial mission.
When it released in 1989, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen had pretty good special effects, although certain sequences showed their age and/or comparatively low-tech nature. Surprisingly, the scenes that looked good in 1989 hold up pretty well in their AVC-encoded high-definition display, although there’s no mistaking them for modern blockbuster releases. Part of the success is the Blu-ray’s playback rate of 25-36 Mbps, which is more than adequate for the only-occasionally fast-moving scenes. The picture does have some noise at times, but it’s more likely an issue of the age of the film and the cameras used rather than the transfer itself. It’s worth noting that the first 15 minutes of the Blu-ray movie are particularly grainy, but it appears to be an intentional move by the filmmakers to communicate the Baron’s dire situation, not an oversight by the post-production room.
Certain special-effects sequences do look pretty cheesy, almost like watching old Star Trek: The Original Series models, and seeing the clunky movement and obvious matte work doesn’t exactly do the movie any favors in 1080p. However, this sort of “artistic kitsch” was pretty obvious 19 years ago too, so it’s hard to fault the Blu-ray transition for not rectifying them. Remember, this isn’t a George Lucas sweetening job; this is a Terry Gilliam film that was sewn together by several different budgets and producers that’s been fortunate to make the leap to Blu-ray Disc.
These budgetary issues are beaten to death in The Madness and Misadventures of Munchausen (1:12:08, 480p), a series of documentaries regarding the film’s production. Much like we’ve seen in previous Monty Python Blu-ray releases, Gilliam and Co. are intent to talk and talk and talk and talk and talk about financial struggles and production problems, almost as if they think that’s all consumers care about in making-of featurettes. This segment, by far the longest non-commentary feature on the disk, combines old photos and recent interviews with the cast and crew too discuss the acting, production and budgetary snafus, but no less than 50 minutes is devoted to discussing — dare I say whining about — financial squabbles and intra-studio politics.
With all the production problems covered in the making-of feature, it’s logical that the real goodies come in the Feature-Length Commentary with Director Terry Gilliam and Co-writer/Actor Charles McKeown. This feature was obviously recorded recently, as the men address the parallels between the war in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and the current Iraq war. This sequence’s recent recording ironically makes the men’s insight even more impressive, because they can recall various actor, art/decor and set issues with immediate familiarity. They also have a great dynamic while talking about the film, which is a rare treat in the world of commentary tracks.
The Marvelous World of Munchausen, a feature exclusive to the movie’s release on Blu-ray, is akin to VH1 Popup Video with its fast facts and trivia, but it also includes storyboards, photos and brief stories about the scene at hand and the real-life history Baron Munchausen. This feature also gives occasional insight into deleted scenes that isn’t necessarily addressed in the commentary track.
Speaking of which, the requisite Deleted Scenes featurette (3:37, 480p) includes four scenes total, one of which is an alternate opening. Each of the scenes is raw and unprocessed, which not only gives you a slight appreciation for the 1080p transfer of the rest of the film, but a deeper comprehension of just how far video quality has come in the past 19 years.
Rounding things out are five Storyboards (30:03), all of which are presented in 480p and comprised of the images/sketches one would expect from a storyboard sequence. Although it’s not a bad inclusion, I’ve liked this film for 19 years, and even I grew tired of this feature after about five minutes. You’ll have to be either the hardest of hardcore Baron Munchausen fans or a film/storyboard student to watch this feature for anything other than review purposes.
Outside of the Storyboards and incessant financial discussions, though, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is one film that deserves your screen time. The story, while fantastical and outlandish at times, is an absolute blast if you can relax your news-cycle mind for two hours, and the sets give plenty of opportunities to ask “what were they smoking when they came up with that one?” It’s not often we keep a movie we review, but The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is already sitting proudly in our Blu-ray display waiting for its next showing.
- Score: 7.9
- The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a mixed bag when it comes to bonus features, and certain effects sequences haven’t withstood the test of time. Fortunately, the film’s story, charm and imagination have.
— Jonas Allen