You can often tell a bit about a person based upon where they know an artist or creative from. Specifically, what period of their work. For instance, if someone were to mention the musician Sting, they could just as easily think of the album Ten Summoner’s Tales (1993) or either film Dune (1984) or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). If one were to mention Robin Williams or Uma Thurman, it’s far more likely for someone to mention Aladdin (1992) or Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) for the former and GATTACA (1997) or Kill Bill, Vol. 1 & 2 (2003/2004) for the latter. Yet, a smaller contingent will place all three within writer/director Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), a film which adapts author Rudolf Erich Raspe’s lampooning tales of chivalry and daring startlingly well. As the third film in Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination” — Time Bandits (1981) and Brazil (1985) making up the prior two — Munchausen explores the end of a man’s life, asking questions about whether truth matters more than imagination and why impossibility over reason allows for a fuller life. Now that it is joining The Criterion Collection in both 4K UHD Blu-ray Combo and Blu-ray-only formats, home viewing audiences can examine this and plenty more at their leisure.
On a random Wednesday during the Age of Reason, a city is besieged by a sultan, its people beleaguered from the unending assault and the increasingly lack of supplies. Amid all this, a staged production of Raspe’s tales of Baron Munchausen occurs in hopes of offering some distraction from the incursion. Midscene, a gentleman interrupts, claiming that the actors are replicating falsehoods and slandering the name, his name, of Baron Munchausen (John Neville). After some arguments, Munchausen takes the stage himself and, in his telling of what occurred, he, the audience, and daughter of the lead actor, Sally (Sarah Polley), go on a grand adventure which, if told correctly, may just save them all.
One of the best reasons to revisit films from a different portion of your life, especially ones you loved, is how it may look or resonate differently thanks to your altered perspective. Such is the case with Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), a film which played on cable (Comedy Central, if memory serves) quite frequently, along with Time Bandits (1981) and other Monty Python-related material. As a child, I viewed the film as Sally, oscillating between absolutely disbelief in the absurdity of Munchausen’s supposed truths and then delighting in my wrongness as each tall tale became a truth as a matter of perspective. To become rich via wager by out-thinking your opponent; to travel with companions of incredible ability; to journey to the moon, only to be cast out to the land of Vulcan and Aphrodite before being swallowed whole by a whale: what child wouldn’t find each of these sections dazzling and wondrous? As an adult, however, Baron Munchausen takes on an entirely different feel as one takes more notice of the make-up work on Neville that makes the actor older or younger depending on his internal vigor. One observes the frequency of Death’s approach, Munchausen’s willingness to just let go and accept it, only to be saved by Sally’s vigilance. Time and again, Munchausen cheats death in the film, but it seems like only another adversary to be out-thought and defeated as a child; whereas it feels like an inevitability, a Sisyphean obstacle that no one can outrun as an adult. With all the wonder and magic still on display, viewing Gilliam’s final film in his “Trilogy of Imagination” as an adult maintains its delights but gains an awareness of finality which undercuts the optimism and awe.
Even though the film does end on an uplifting note — the sultan defeated, his warmongering partner (Jonathan Pryce’s The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson) unseated in the town and killed, the people taking back the streets — one can’t help but notice the notion Gilliam and co-screenwriter (and cast member) Charles McKeown feed through the narrative: the true death of humanity is the total leaning into reason and the abdication of imagination. Without imagination, without a sense of impossibility, Munchausen becomes more withered and doddering; but, when fully embracing impracticality, his youthfulness abounds. Viewed from another perspective, that of a parent, there’s incredible freedom in believing in impossibility, or, at the very least, not allowing reason to prevent one’s curiosity or considering improbability. The number of times my children have figured out solutions to the things that frustrate them *or* design and build using toys, material and digital, in ways that I would never consider, just astounds me. They don’t know all the supposed rules of society, therefore they’re less restricted by invisible boundaries. If Munchausen proclaims that unabashed reason is the downfall of humanity wherein only things scientific or explainable can be utilized and any shifts in emotion or creativity will be killed (sorry, Sting’s nameless heroic officer), then it’s also suggesting that maintaining some level of uncertainty, some aspect of the unlikely, actually extends and fulfills one’s life. Who wants to be destroyed by the raw unfiltered hatred of humanity or swallowed up by bureaucracy when we can travel the globe with the fastest runner, sharpest shooter, more virile exhaler, or strongest person in all the world having impossible adventures? Choosing the latter seems almost too easy given the options.
Prior to the Criterion edition, there was a 20th anniversary release that offered a number of special features providing insights into the making of the film. This included feature-length commentary with Gilliam and McKeown, deleted scenes, storyboards, a three-part documentary titled The Madness & Misadventures of Munchausen, and an interactive portion called “Marvelous World of Munchausen” in which home-viewing audiences would be prompted to tap a button to learn more about the making of the film upon the appearance of an icon. Much of these 2008 features are included in the Criterion edition but with the addition of more materials. These new special features include a video essay from critic/filmmaker David Cairns exploring the fascinating history of the literary and cinematic version of Baron Munchausen, various marketing materials, a Gilliam-narrated look at the special effects process for several scenes of the movie (with on-screen comparisons of on-set versus final product provided), and an animated short film from 1974 titled Miracle of Flight in the style Monty Python fans will recognize instantly. If you’re a fan of the film, whether you own the 20th anniversary edition as I do or not, there’s still plenty in the Criterion edition that’s worth considering. Personally, the Cairns essay alone offers up such fascinating history that it’s inspired a desire to track down other versions of the Baron Munchausen adaptations, as well as provides insight into Gilliam’s casting of Neville in the lead role. The essay by critic/author Michael Koresky in the liner notes (also available online), also contributes additional context for the film that someone, like myself, who first came to the film as a child may not have (ahem) reasoned, but that can be appreciated when closer to the wizened Baron’s age.
Regarding the editions, there are two versions available to purchases: the 4K UHD Blu-ray Combo and the Blu-ray-only edition. Gratefully, Criterion sent a 4K UHD edition (more on that in a moment), so I can inform you that the three discs are similarly decorated but each with a defining on-disc color. The primarily black disc is the 4K UHD disc, which includes the film and feature-length commentary track. The blue disc is identical in content to the black disc, but presents the film in standard high-definition 1080p. The third disc is red and includes the rest of the bonus materials. Amusingly, the art design on the discs resembles that of the King and Queen of the Moon, adding a little cheek as one removes or replaces a disc into the case. Speaking of, the case itself is clear, the design on the reverse of the cover art depicting the city on the moon in which Munchausen and Sally are trapped before the King’s floating head (Robin Williams) appears.
As far as the restoration itself, the liner notes indicate that Sony Pictures Home Entertainment handled the restoration. As the film is originally a Columbia Pictures release, this makes a certain amount of sense for them to handle. Continuing from the liner notes, Cineric, Inc. performed a 4K wet-gate scan (meaning that the film gate used in the restoration scan was immersed in liquid during the process) of the 35 mm original camera negative. Color grading of the film was done in High-Dynamic Range (HDR) and the previously upmixed audio from 2004 was restored to confirm to 5.1 surround sound standards. Overall, the restoration was supervised by Grover Crisp of Sony Pictures Entertainment with color approval by Gilliam. Though the Blu-ray is only standard-definition (SDR), the 4K UHD disc includes Dolby Vision HDR. Using my Xbox One 4K player and LG 4K UHD television, the picture is a little inconsistent with some scenes (like the air balloon sequence) possessing more visible grain than others and some of the more fantastical sets (like climbing to the crescent point of the moon) had a visible aura; while others appeared more natural in color and presentation, the colors distinct with minimal bleeding (the background of the sky in the crescent moon sequence is gorgeous), allowing for the fantastic to appear as grounded as the “natural” world. This allows for the more fabricated elements (it is a story about storytelling after all) to seamless connect to the realistic ones. The audio is, I must admit, a tricky thing to evaluate. At no time did I notice any of my back speakers broadcasting information, yet the dialogue is crisp and the ambient noise from the front speakers balanced. If there was something coming through my back speakers when I didn’t seek to observe it, it was truly unnoticeable and, yet, none of the viewing felt minimized by the lack of it.
All in all, if you’re a fan of Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen, the opportunity to see the film in an improved state is enough to warrant the purchase. Understandably, if you’re aware of what the director did regarding the handling of young actor Sarah Polley on the set, you may feel a little squeamish at the prospect of enjoying the film. Evidentially, upon the announcement by Criterion on October 17th, 2022, of Munchausen joining the collection, Polley shared to her Twitter account a response, including, “… You may not be asking for it or care — but you have my unconditional permission to still love this movie.” As someone who tries to be ethical with their viewing, she offers a kindness (either for or in spite of herself we may not know), but it’s a kindness that I know I personally appreciate.
So, consider well, dear reader. The choice to purchase or not is ultimately yours. I would side with supporting the restoration as there’s enough on here to excite long-time fans, but I might also encourage some to wait for either a Criterion site sale or one of the Barnes and Noble sales in order to reduce the cost, should you already own a version with many of the on-disc materials. Considering how clever Munchausen is with procuring a coin, I doubt he’d mind if you applied similar reasoning to do the same.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen 4K UHD & Blu-ray Special Features:
- New 4K digital restoration, approved by writer-director Terry Gilliam, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack
- One 4K UHD disc of the film presented in Dolby Vision HDR and two Blu-rays with the film and special features
- New video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns about the history of the Baron Munchausen character (17:21)
- Behind-the-scenes footage of the film’s special effects, narrated by Gilliam (16:10)
- Miracle of Flight (1974), an animated short film by Gilliam (5:25)
- Episode of The South Bank Show from 1991 on Gilliam (47:10)
- Audio commentary featuring Gilliam and his co-screenwriter, Charles McKeown
- Documentary on the making of the film, The Madness & Misadventures of Munchausen
- Deleted scenes with commentary by Gilliam
- Storyboards for unfilmed scenes, narrated by Gilliam and McKeown
- Original marketing materials including a trailer and electronic-press-kit featurettes, as well as preview cards and advertising proposals read by Gilliam
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: An essay by critic and author Michael Koresky
- New cover by Abigail Giuseppe
Available on 4K UHD Blu-Ray Combo and Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection January 3rd, 2023.