Munchausen, by moxie

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Terry Gilliam—director, writer, animator and Monty Python alumnus—is famous for two things: the complexity of his artistic vision and the amount of trouble—nay, disaster—that his productions invariably entail. Gilliam’s Law, which I just made up, posits that anything that can go wrong with a film—studio interference, legal wrangling, massive budgetary expenses, floods, herniated disks—will go wrong.

For example, his latest production was to feature Heath Ledger (who also starred in Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm). Needless to say, that project has been put on “temporary” hold. Bad enough, until you find out that it wasn’t the first Gilliam film to be nixed by the Reaper: Time Bandits II lost three of its stars before the production could even begin. The irony that one of his failed projects was a film about Don Quixote has been lost on no one, not least the maestro himself.

True to Gilliam form, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, on DVD again this week in a 20th Anniversary Edition, had its share of problems. Gilliam’s adaptation of Rudolph Erich Raspe’s 18th-century tale of the famously hyperimaginative baron (John Neville), whose name is now most commonly associated with malingerers and psychopathically abusive parents, was budgeted at $23 million. It cost $46 million. Actress Sarah Polley described her experience of making it as “traumatic,” “physically grueling” and “unsafe.” Nevertheless, Munchausen, like many of Gilliam’s films, has become a cult darling. The director’s penchant for baroque detail is in full force, and while Munchausen is rooted in the darkest of comedic territory—the baron and his cohorts (including Eric Idle) take on ridiculous odds, ridiculous adversaries (Oliver Reed, Jonathan Pryce, Robin Williams) and numerous tangential story lines, trying to save an unnamed Middle European city from the Turks—the look is far brighter and richer than Gilliam favorites like Time Bandits, Twelve Monkeys or even Brazil.

Like so many of his protagonists, the ever-quixotic Gilliam continues to march forward in the face of adversity, but Munchausen offers a wonderful look back, and a reminder that sometimes things actually go right.