'The Adventures of Baron Munchausen' 4K Ultra HD movie review

Famed Monty Python alum and filmmaker Terry Gilliam’s 1988 lavish period fairy tale comes back to cinematic life through a welcomed ultra-high definition restoration for diehard fans to now reappreciate The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Criterion, rated PG, 1.85:1 aspect ratio, 126 minutes, $49.95).

Originally a box office bomb, though revered by critics at the time and nominated for a quartet of Academy Awards, Mr. Gilliam’s interpretation of Rudolph Erich Raspe’s 1785 book about the fictional exploits of an 18th century German nobleman is now firmly a visual masterpiece and cult classic.

Specifically, the baron (John Neville), has a tendency to tell the tallest of tales that take viewers on a journey during the “Age of Reason” from an unnamed European town under siege by the Ottoman Empire to the moon, a volcano and even the belly of a sea creature.

He takes a superpowered team along on his adventures that includes the speedster Berthold, so fast that he wears a ball and chain on each ankle to slow him down (Eric Idle in fine comedic form); the strong man named Albrecht (Winston Dennis); the pint-sized wind machine Gustavus (Jack Purvis); an eagle-eyed sharpshooter Adolphus (Charles McKeown); and a little girl with strong determination Sally Salt (Sarah Polley).

A steady stream of whimsical and fantastical sets and practical effects within fabled realms, especially noted on the trip to moon, mix between the starker and the explosive scenes demonstrating the ludicrous futility of war while the baron orchestrates all.

Viewers will love appearances by Sting as a too-heroic soldier; Oliver Reed as the Roman god Vulcan; Uma Thurman as his wife Venus; and a totally off-the-rails Robin Williams (uncredited) as the multistoried king of the moon (often seen as a head on a silver platter).

Mr. Gilliam’s effort shines throughout greatly helped by Dante Ferretti’s boundless sets and Gabriella Pescucci’s period costumes as he often captures a living absurdist fantasy and equals the baron’s imagination for spinning quite the elaborate, onion-peeling-back style of adventures.

4K in action: Producers gave Mr. Gilliam a burgeoning visual effects budget and the money pays off with some wondrous moments of the screen-filling presentation, even more impacted now by this remastered version of the movie, restored with the 35mm original camera negative and finalized with the director’s approval.

Start with the crisp, colorful and vibrant scene of the baron, Berthold and Sally in the front of a galaxy and climbing the side of a crescent moon while a blue star chart evolves behind them with animated constellations including Pegasus moving around.

Equally thrilling for the peepers is watching the king of the moon atop a three-headed vulture and throwing a giant asparagus stalk at the baron as he runs on the lunar surface.

Other lush visual highlights include a saturated, swirling, psychedelic vortex sucking our heroes through the center of the earth and a giant clam opening and revealing a live adaptation of Botticelli’s famous painting the “Birth of Venus.”

Best extras: Criterion offers a dynamite package for cinephiles to look back on the origins and production of the movie.

Start with a vintage optional commentary track from 2008 on both the 4K and Blu-ray discs of the film featuring the dry-witted director and writer Mr. McKeown talking about the “nightmare” of this often-troubled movie in a very conversational but very informative track.

A separate Blu-ray disc contains the rest of the digital goodies beginning with a 75-minute, three-part, archival documentary from the same year that complements the commentary track.

It offers plenty of deconstruction on a production on the verge of spiraling out of control due to a ballooning budget, excessive production design, exhausting shooting schedule (including weeks of night shoots) and culture clashes while working on location in Italy and Spain.

All is succinctly encapsulated with Mr. Idle reminding viewers how much he hated working on the movie, and all chronicled by key cast and crew including plenty of Mr. Gilliam and the vilified producer Thomas Schühly.

Next, critic David Cairns offers a 17-minute visual essay on the real baron (yes, he was real) and how parodied his faux-adventures for the famed book. Mr. Cairns looks at the baron and his various incarnations in theater, film and animated projects even talking about a Nazi-funded movie back in 1943.

Round out the meaty portions of the extras with a 48-minute episode from 1991 of “The South Bank Show” that spotlights the career of Mr. Gilliam and his home life, hosted by Melvyn Bragg and also featuring the wit of Michael Palin.

Also available are storyboards to unfinished scenes, deleted scenes and special effects shots (all with optional commentary from Mr. Gilliam).

The package contains a brochure on the film highlighted by an essay from Michael Koresky.


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