The Criterion Collection 1166
Format: BD, UHD
Terry Gilliam’s beloved 1988 film concludes with the most curious of pronouncements: “This is a new motion picture. This motion picture is not to be confused with the UFA/Transit/Murnau 1942/43 motion picture bearing the title ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.’” As if anyone could confuse this with any other film by any other filmmaker. It is a unique statement, a singular effort, and yet . . .
For years now, cinephiles have simply digested and regurgitated the framing of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen as the third film in Gilliam’s self-described “Trilogy of Imagination,” with Time Bandits and the brilliant Brazil serving as the first two entries. And sure, that theory has some explanatory power. But must we cling to a filmmaker’s own framing out of some sense of artistic obligation and fealty to the ridiculous auteur theory?
I hope not, for just as our own solar system started to make more sense once we demoted Pluto to dwarf-planet status along with its hundreds or thousands of similar siblings, Munchausen makes more sense when we treat Time Bandits as an earlier draft and view this film and Brazil more as two sides of the same coin, or perhaps one as yin to the other’s yang. It isn’t really until you view the films in succession that you get a truly complete statement from Gilliam on the tension between escapism and reality, with one half filtered through the lens of Nineteen Eighty-Four-esque dystopian sci-fi and the other with an eye toward the allegorical fantasy of The Wizard of Oz.
Of course, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a delightful if somewhat uneven romp in its own right, dragged down in spots perhaps only by the fact that the film doesn’t truly work until you’ve seen it from beginning to end. Incredible performances by John Neville, Sarah Polley, Oliver Reed, Eric Idle, Jack Purvis, Bill Paterson, and an uncredited Robin Williams keep things moving, though, even when the narrative and production gets a little overindulgent, and Uma Thurman’s unforgettable turn as Venus has lost none of its power all these years later.
It’s funny, though; while Brazil has largely ossified in terms of public perception (even despite numerous cuts and recuts), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a film that deserves re-evaluation every few years, if only for the fact that it somehow manages to become more relevant and poignant as our culture continues to become more insane and disconnected from objective reality. You’d think the dystopian sci-fi tragicomedy would be the film more worthy of digging up and scrutinizing regularly as the world becomes more comedically tragic and dystopian, but it’s the whacky children’s film about the world’s most famous liar that continues to evolve in the eyes of the viewer—this viewer, at least. Although, to be fair, I might be letting Criterion’s new 4K HDR restoration influence me on that front.
The new wet-gate scan of the original camera negative and the high-dynamic-range grading thereof transforms the film in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible. For one thing, it’s a much darker image in this iteration. The expanded dynamic range means that the entire value scale didn’t have to be boosted to shine some light into the shadows, and as such, the imagery has much more depth now, much more pop, infinitely more richness. At times, it reads almost as 3D without the glasses. And that necessarily changes the mood.
For another thing, the color palette is much more nuanced, which adds a dose of reality to this flight of fancy. Pure primaries ring through with more intensity, sure, but what caught my eye most were all the instances in which vague beiges have been replaced with the subtlest infusions of warm and cool pastels. The curtains of the theater just after the real Munchausen makes his first appearance are perhaps the most striking example of this. Skin tones, too, are slightly flushed without being sunburnt, in keeping with the warm cast of the Eastman stock, whose fine-but-persistent grain (in all but a few shots) also reads much more as an organic quality of the medium in this new transfer, rather than pure noise.
There are a handful of scenes in which the grain gets a little unruly—dupe shots, optical blow-ups, and a few odd effects scenes. Thank goodness no one saw fit to smooth them over or denoise them, as they only add to the character of the film and serve as a reminder that, despite the ridiculous-for-its-day budget, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is still a film of a certain vintage.
One only wishes that the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack were quite so revelatory. It is, in large part, a continued effort to conform the six-track magnetic soundtrack made for the film’s 70mm blowup to modern surround-sound standards. And it’s mostly successful, except for the fact that the discrete surround effects more often than not serve to draw more attention to the bandwidth limitations of the original recordings. I wish we also got a two-channel version of the Dolby SR soundtrack included with the original 35mm release, but that may be lost to time—who knows? Given how poorly the film was distributed, it might be.
At any rate, if that’s the only bone I have to pick with Criterion’s new three-disc release, that should tell you something. In addition to the new 4K restoration, this release also carries over many of the extras from Sony’s 20th-anniversary Blu-ray from 2008, including the worthwhile commentary track by Gilliam and Charles McKeown, as well as the amazing three-part feature-length documentary The Madness and Misadventures of Munchausen, which still stands as one of the most brutally honest retrospectives ever created for any film.
There are also deleted scenes and such, but perhaps the bonus goodies of most interest to fans of the film are the new video essay by David Cairns on the history of the title character—real, literary, and cinematic alike—as well as new behind-the-scenes footage of a handful of key effects shots, with commentary recorded by Gilliam in 2022. The former comes across as a well-made YouTube passion project (that’s not a criticism), whereas the latter is exactly the sort of enriching deep-dive supplement you’d hope would accompany a film like this.
Put together the truly reference-quality film restoration with the good-as-we’re-gonna-get sound mix, delightful menus, and an excellent collection of extras new and old, and this is one of my favorite Criterion releases in quite some time.
Be sure to watch for: The scene in which Munchausen’s tiny ship transitions seamlessly from drifting across the ocean to plowing through the dust on the surface of the moon. It’s one of the best special effects in the entire film, and it’s all the more magical in 4K HDR.
. . . Dennis Burger