When I read the reviews by the critics of this film, I wondered if we had seen the same movie. There seems to be a fear when a great artist presents something that doesn't work, that critics are afraid to criticize it because they may reveal their ignorance. Picasso is probably the greatest example of this effect.
The same thing seems to have happened with Baron Munchausen. It is big, the cinematography is first-rate, the production values and the actors are all first rate, but the film itself is impossible to follow. I have always been a big Terry Gilliam fan, and this was one of my biggest disappointments in a film I was sure would be brilliant.
There were several very basic and fixable things wrong with this film. The first is that not everyone is familiar with the Baron Munchausen story. The script should have introduced us to the character and made us familiar with why he is a pathological liar who believes his own tall tales. Secondly, Neville, the actor who played the title role, never had acted in a movie before, and here he acts exactly as if he is on stage, complete with warbling old-age stage voice. Third, Gilliam lost track of what should have been the core interest of the film; the relationship between the hopelessly muddled old man and the little girl who cares about him despite his fabrications. Instead, that gets lost, and we lose the only thread of the story we care about.
Possible Spoilers: The point where we leave reality and enter his tall tales is not made clear, and the fact that the little girl inhabits his tall tales as he tells them, makes it even more confusing and muddled to the viewer. We don't know where we are, and if that is what the director intended, it is a mistake. After a while the audience gets disconnected from the film and we stop caring, because we get tired of being confused.
The characters of the dwarf with sharp hearing, the world's strongest man, Eric Idle as the world's fastest man, and the guy who can see around the world are all superfluous. We don't know who they are other than their powers, what their relationship is with the pathological Munchausen, and why we should care about them. There is an absolutely tedious scene where Eric Idle does a silly dance to confuse Hephaestus (the god of fire) so Munchausen can escape, that goes on and on. The scene has absolutely no purpose and isn't funny, even tho Idle puts everything into it. It's painful to watch, and feels insulting to the audience to believe an Olympic god is going to be "tricked" this way.
This movie reminds me very much of Yellowbeard, in the amount of great talent that is wasted. Gilliam told some pretty tall tales himself to get the movie made, misleading the studios into how much it would cost, then kvetched at length about having to cut down the script. What he should have done was bitten the bullet, swallowed his pride, and had a coherent rewrite done of the script. In this case, less expense, less visuals, and tighter writing would have been much more. The ending makes no sense and will leave the viewer with the full sense of confusion the rest of the movie induced. It will also leave the viewer with the correct sense that they have just wasted well over two hours of their time, waiting for a satisfying conclusion that makes sense of the preceding two hours.
As expensive as this movie was to make, and as much as I admire Gilliam, I can't recommend this movie; it is tedious and headache-inducing, and repeated viewings don't help clear up gaps in the story. You also will not care about a single character in it.
Buy the book "Losing the Light" about the debacle of the making of this film. It is much more gripping, enthralling and fun to read than this movie is to see. In it, Gilliam comes through, unfortunately, as a man done in by his own perceived cleverness and hubris (and deliberate deception, which almost destroyed one company, the completion bond company, after costing it millions), and you will understand why this movie is not more successful than it is. The definitive Munchausen story, for those that care about this character, is still waiting to be made; however, after this $50,000,000 movie, it is doubtful another one about Munchausen will be!
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