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‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’ (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 24, 1989

Terry Gilliam's "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" is a wondrous feat of imagination. In terms of sheer inventiveness, it makes the other movies around these days look paltry and underfed. The worlds Gilliam has created here are like the ones he created in his animations for Monty Python -- they have a majestic peculiarity. And you're constantly amazed by the freshness and eccentricity of what is pushed in front of your eyes.

As a director, Gilliam is a genuine novelty -- a fire-and-brimstone fantasist. His assault on the senses is relentless; he never lets up, never gives us a chance to catch our breath. Visually, the film -- which was shot by Fellini's longtime cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno -- is miraculously, almost perversely dense. The director gives "Munchausen" the antic personality of a cartoon, but Gilliam's fantasies aren't light. His dream universe has gravity. If it's a place where men ride through the sky on cannonballs and sail to the moon, it's also one where the flesh sags.

"Munchausen" is an adventure epic about a monumental liar -- a tall tale about a teller of tall tales. It begins sometime in the late 18th century (on a Wednesday) with a flash of cannon fire in a German town under siege by the Turks. While the city is under attack, a band of actors is in the process of presenting a stage version of the Baron's adventures. From the back of the bomb-ravaged theater an old man -- the real Baron Munchausen (John Neville) -- loudly interrupts. Protesting that the playwright has gotten it all wrong, the verbose raconteur launches into his own version, explaining how, as the result of a bet with the Grand Turk, he inadvertently sparked the current war.

The picture is most transporting early on when, for example, Gilliam peels away the back of the theater to carry us inside the Turk's marbled harem. Or when, in order to escape from his enemies, the Baron patches together the undergarments of the townswomen to construct a hot-air balloon.

Its high point comes when the Baron and Sally (Sarah Polley), the young stowaway aboard his balloon, voyage to the moon in search of the adventurer's superheroic cohorts, Berthold (Eric Idle), Adolphus (Charles McKeown, who also assisted in writing the script), Albrecht (Winston Dennis) and Gustavus (Jack Purvis). Here they encounter the King of the Moon. Played by Robin Williams -- in the credits he's listed as Ray D. Tutto -- the King appears first as a gigantic pasty-faced head on a platter with colossal Ionic hair, spinning through space. Forever on the lam from his carnally obsessed body, the King sputters in pidgin Italian about the diversions of the flesh. "I've got a galaxy to run, I don't have time for flatulence and orgasms."

This is Williams at full bore, and truly it's a sight to behold. Flying through the stars, he's like the Wizard of Oz, but with cracked circuits. His part is only a cameo, but with it he's articulated the mind/body split for all time.

Of all the actors, though, Williams is the only one to establish any sort of performance rhythm. As Venus, Uma Thurman has a luscious entrance, rising up out of the deep in her clamshell, and Oliver Reed is a rivet-spitting simpleton as her jealous husband Vulcan. And as the Baron, Neville is physically perfect -- he makes a great, larger-than-life object -- and his combination of dashing charm and decrepitude gives the film a jolt of swashbuckling heart.

Somehow, though, except for Williams, the actors are never more than a detail in Gilliam's compositions. The film's true star is its design -- and its whopping sense of fantasy. The picture is a sort of tract against the tyranny of reason and science, and for the director, Munchausen -- who in real life was a cavalry officer in the service of Frederick the Great -- is a symbol of the magical possibilities of imagination and wonder. The one true villain in the piece is a fascist bureaucrat named Jackson (Jonathan Pryce), who is so stern in his insistence on the commonplace that he has one heroic soldier (played by Sting) put to death -- for being extraordinary. For the Baron, the ordinary life isn't worth living, and just as the figure of Death is about to steal away his soul because "there's no room in the world anymore for a three-legged Cyclops, cucumber trees and oceans of wine," his will to live is restored by the faith of a child -- little Sally -- in the phantasms of naive rapture.

As dream visions go, the one in which a moviemaker casts himself as the savior of all that is wondrous and magical is a fairly dangerous one, and if the stories of cost overruns and self-indulgence are to be believed, Gilliam may have fallen under its sway. The movie is an exhilarating one-of-a-kind achievement, but it's overbearing, too -- a little too in-your-face to be as enjoyable as you might hope it to be.

This was true of Gilliam's "Brazil" as well. For all of the brilliance in that movie's first hour, its satire deteriorated into hysterical rantings. Gilliam revels in artifice and theatricality; he has an animator's obsession with mechanics, with levers and pulleys and the spinning and fitting of gears. But the impression you get from "Munchausen" is that for Gilliam, a film is perhaps too much of a contraption, too much of an object to be manipulated. In making his films, he's remaking the world completely, from the ground up, because he knows that invented worlds are the easiest to destroy. He creates his worlds in order to engulf them in flames. All his imaginings have a taste of the apocalypse in them. This is a heavy burden for any fantasy to bear, and "Munchausen" can't bear it. Legend has it that Baron Munchausen could swing his sword above his head so fast that he wouldn't get wet in the rain. Gilliam hasn't kept dry, but he's done some heavenly sword work.

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