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Arthur V. Johnson,
This fantasy-comedy is one of the later works of "trick film" pioneer Georges Méliès, who started production in 1896 and made literally hundreds of these charming little movies before his career foundered in 1914. For viewers familiar with his style Baron Munchhausen's Dream (as it was known in the U.S.) presents a number of the director's characteristic touches, while for newcomers it may serve as a succinct digest of the special effects and comic motifs he had perfected during his fifteen years of film-making, rather like a cinematic medley of Georges' Greatest Hits.
As the film begins we join a dinner party of 18th century aristocrats, periwigged gentlemen and ladies in silk dresses, dining and drinking and chatting with great animation. It is suggested they move to the ballroom to dance, and most of the celebrants exit, but the host, Baron Munchausen, is too intoxicated to dance -- in fact, he can barely walk, and has to be helped to bed by servants. We notice immediately that his bedroom is dominated by an enormous mirror. Soon, as Munchausen falls asleep, this mirror becomes a stage-like setting for the baron's elaborate and disturbing dream. He travels to Egypt and is terrorized by the Pharaoh; he sees a trio of women (the Three Fates?) who turn into monstrous animals; he is menaced by giant insects; he sees women in Greek-style costumes who strike classical poses and then transform into an ornate fountain; he finds himself in a grotto where acrobatic demons tumble in every direction; he is confronted by a dragon; he is horrified by a spider-like woman in a giant web, then encounters a moon man with a bizarre face. The moon man's tongue becomes grotesquely long, and then his nose does likewise. When the moon man turns into an elephant wearing eye-glasses the baron reaches his limit of endurance. He smashes the mirror with a bedside table, then plummets through it. He falls out the window of his home, but fortunately his night-shirt snags on an iron fence and he is discovered by his servants dangling above the sidewalk, unhurt but caught in a most undignified position. We get one last look at Baron Munchausen the following morning, as he grimaces into his mirror with a pained expression.
This is a funny short as far as it goes, and if you've never seen a Méliès comedy it's well worth a look, but those wondering why his career ended so abruptly will find some clues here: while other directors were forging ahead with new cinematic techniques, Méliès was still producing the same sort of film he'd made repeatedly since the 1890s, with all the same effects produced from the same dwindling bag of tricks. The camera maintains its usual distance from the actors, with no close-ups. Méliès seemed to regard his actors as interchangeable puppets who were there to undergo transformations, strike tableaux-like poses or to react, but not to have any existence as recognizable characters. The movies were maturing past their infancy by 1911, and audience expectations were changing; the pioneer producers who survived into the new era of feature-length films were the ones who were able to accommodate movie-goers' new demands. Georges Méliès apparently saw no need to adapt or update his style and, as enjoyable as his films undeniably were, this creative paralysis was one of the reasons his career ended prematurely. Poor business decisions, exacerbated by the outbreak of the First World War and its impact on trade in Europe, were also major factors in his downfall.
Meanwhile, Baron Munchhausen's Dream is a perfectly enjoyable example of this director's work, and serves as something of a summation of his best creative qualities, but it also demonstrates Georges Méliès' perilous limitations as a filmmaker.
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