The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Directed by Terry Gilliam

The cult of Gilliam has always mystified me. He is a filmmaker with fans who bend over backwards praising his work, but I’ve always left his films feeling shortchanged. He is an awful writer who has absolutely no quality control filter. For every great sequence in his films, such as the subway scene in The Fisher King, you have several mind-numbingly lame and clumsy scenes. For example, in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Gilliam concocts a scene where the Baron takes his young companion to the moon in search of its king and queen, who have heads which can detach from their bodies, forming an antagonistic relationship between their id and super-ego. How fantastical! However, when we arrive, what do we see? Robin Williams at his most grating playing the Moon King and sucking away all of the movie’s momentum. This scene is a microcosm of Gilliam’s entire oeuvre. We have a visually pleasing and relatively creative set piece that is totally undermined by what the characters are actually doing and saying.

I think it’s clear to anybody who has followed along this summer that I approach films primarily for the stories they have to tell. I appreciate good writing more than anything and this probably makes Gilliam and me a poor fit, as storytelling doesn’t seem to be his primary interest. Normally, I would just shrug my shoulders and concede that this kind of artist is not for me. However, what bugged me about this film is that Baron Munchausen is clearly supposed to be a stand-in for Terry Gilliam. My first reaction was to be appalled by the hubris of this, given the fact that the Baron is supposed to be this great misunderstood hero. However, upon a closer inspection, I couldn’t agree more! He’s certainly a character with lofty ambitions, but actually his few successes in the film are accomplished in spite of himself. Aside from some nifty (and let’s be honest – terribly filmed and choreographed) work with the sword during the film’s climax, the Baron spends the entire film using everyone  around him, putting his own selfish desires ahead of the entire town who is counting on him, and taking credit for victories won solely due to the fine work of his sidekicks – you know, the ones with actual skills aside from being a blowhard. It works the same way with his films – when his actors bail him out, as Johnny Depp does in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (which also benefits by being an adaptation and not an original story), his films work. When the performances are not enough, as is the case in pretty much every other Gilliam film I have seen, they fail.