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‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’ (PG)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 24, 1989

"The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" opens with a raging war. Turks are storming the city. Cannons are belching fire. A title appears on-screen: "18th Century -- The Age of Reason."

Then, a moment later, "Wednesday."

If you detect a little "Monty Python" in the air, you're right. Terry Gilliam, the Python team's erstwhile animator and collaborator, is the wit behind this lavish display of sieges, sea-creature tussles and trips to the moon. Adapting the handed-down stories of Baron Von Munchausen, an 18th-century spinner of tall tales, this modern maker of similar flights of fancy ("The Time Bandits" and "Brazil") has created another brilliantly inventive epic of fantasy and satire. And all this on a Wednesday.

Which is when, in this besieged city, a distinguished old fellow (John Neville), followed by a huge, loping hound, interrupts a kitschy stage reenactment of the baron's adventures to claim he is the real baron. Over protesting actors and a boisterous audience, the old man relates the real story of his halcyon days.

Or Gilliam's version. For the manically creative director, that means building (with production designer Dante Ferretti) a glorious New Babylon of movie sets at Rome's colossal Cinecitta studios and rebuttressing an old beachside town in Spain. It means making magic with cinematographer Giuseppe ("Amarcord") Rotunno, special effects wiz Richard Conway and an army of Italian, British and Spanish creative talents, as the baron joy-rides flying cannonballs, reaches the moon by hot-air balloon (built with women's lingerie) and literally dances on air with Venus (the exquisitely featured Uta Thurman).

It also means Gilliam's familiar face-off between good (magic, creativity, imagination, hope) and bad (Age-of-Reason logic, mediocrity and cynicism). "He won't get far on hot air and fantasy," sneers nasty city official Jonathyn Price, as the baron floats heavenward (courtesy of that underwear). This is a man who has just executed war hero Sting for overachieving.

Neville, a veteran of British and Canadian stage, exudes quixotic --

and world-weary -- charm as the old hero pursuing final glory. His trusty sidekicks Eric Idle, Charles McKeown (also coscriptwriter), Jack Purvis, Winston Dennis and 10-year-old tag-along Sarah Polley make a winning Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. "Python" stalwart Idle is particularly vivid as supersonic globe traverser Berthold, a man who must tether each of his enormously muscular legs to a ball and chain -- to stop himself from impulsively zipping around the Earth. Improvisatory prince Robin Williams (uncredited in the movie) ignites his scenes as the manic King of the Moon, whose highly cerebral head is constantly trying to free itself from that sex-crazy body. But the most memorable cameo comes from Oliver Reed, who uses his dark menace to hilarious advantage as Vulcan, the jealous fire god. He fumes like a furnace when someone flirts with his bride Venus, but flicks back into her little Bic when she soothes his ruffled pride.

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