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The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment . R4 . COLOR . 121 mins . PG . PAL

  Feature
Contract

Terry Gilliam can safely be regarded as one of the most imaginative and dynamic directors working in motion pictures today. His keen visual sense, dark humour and penchant for flights of fantasy makes his 1985 masterpiece Brazil my favourite film.

After fighting Universal for a year to gain an unbutchered release of Brazil, Gilliam decided to remake the story of Baron Munchausen, which had last been produced in 1961. His producer convinced him to shoot the picture in Italy, believing that the local colour and visual beauty of the architecture would more than compensate for the slight increase in budget required.

Some time later, the budget had nearly doubled to $46 million (placing it in the top five most expensive films to date) despite discarding numerous protracted effect sequences. Sets were damaged in gales, there were near-constant translation difficulties between the American director and the Italian crew causing slow work and errors, people got sick, animals died and costumes were held up in Customs strikes. The original producer had absconded with money from the project, the second producer seemed unconcerned with the project and his unrealistic budget forecasts, and Gilliam was nearly forcibly replaced as director by the studio.

Despite all the problems, the film was finally completed, though well behind schedule. Young test audiences, informed that Sting had a part in the picture, complained when it was a mere walkon, and test ratings were dreadful. Having now missed the Christmas season due to the delays, Columbia threw their hands in the air, struck a mere 117 prints of the film, and essentially let it die.

Which is a shame, because it's a charming, warm film suitable for both children and adults. Gilliam stifles the bleak world view of Brazil and instead unleashes some of the most dazzling special effects ever; remember, this was before CGI had reared its often ugly head. Even after a decade the visuals hold up well and support a delightfully mischievous story of Baron Munchausen (John Neville), who gatecrashes a theatre in a warstricken town as a play about his fanciful exploits is being performed, and decries it as 'lies and balderdash!'. He began this war, he claims, and only he can stop it, with the help of his talented servants (Eric Idle, Charles McKeown, Jack Purvis and Winston Dennis) and a little girl (Canadian Sarah Polley, who recently excelled in Go).

  Video
Contract

With a film that relies so heavily on amazingly detailed and historically accurate sets, a good video transfer is essential, and Columbia have done a nice job on this anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen disc. The colours are rich and lush when required, but never appear 'pumped up' or video-like. The image is very natural and filmic, allowing the superb cinematography to come to the fore. Although there did appear to be a bit of edge-enhancing to increase perceived detail, I should mention that I reviewed the disc on an unfamiliar player which could be adding unwanted artifacts to the image.

Film artifacts, while present, didn't intrude much, and the source print is actually cleaner than the one used for the classy Criterion SE laserdisc which I picked up a couple of years ago. When I say the image is quite similar to the Criterion disc (bar the lack of NTSC artifacts caused by the laserdiscs' analog video), discerning filmbuffs should take that as high recommendation.

The packaging is mislabled and claims the disc is single-layered. It is in fact dual-layer, and the layer change is well-placed.

  Audio
Contract

I wish I could say the audio was as choice as the video. While the disc has a Dolby Surround soundtrack (the packaging incorrectly states that the English track is stereo-only), the sound is thin, compressed in nature and has no real richness or dynamic complexity. The stereo PCM track on the Criterion laserdisc sounds far superior in all aspects.

For example, I used to use the scene where the Baron uses snuff powder to induce the whale that has swallowed him into sneezing as a demo of Pro-Logic surround back in the days before 5.1 digital surround. On the laserdisc, the surround speakers produce an low, energetic rumble. When watching the DVD with my girlfriend, I didn't even NOTICE the sound and had to check again once the film had finished. It's there, but it has none of the presence or weight of the laserdisc.

  Extras
Contract

Maybe I am spoilt, but the Criterion three-disc special edition has an excellent director's commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes effects footage, an account of the production problems with the film, interviews, a script analysis including scenes never filmed, storyboards with commentary, promotional posters, advertising campaigns and more.

The DVD has... a mono trailer.

Let's just say I'm happy I own the laserdisc. How hard would it have been for Columbia to license some of Criterion's copious extras for this release? Perhaps they shied away from detailing the problems Gilliam had with the studio during the troubled post-production.

  Overall  
Contract

Baron Munchausen is a good film, though by no means perfect. The special edition shows why the film is flawed and helps you understand how it fits into Gilliam's 'Dream' trilogy with Time Bandits and Brazil. Considering that Criterion are busily releasing as much of their laserdisc back catalogue onto DVD as possible, and that while this DVD looks superior to the laserdisc, it sounds noticeably worse and has none of the extra features, I would be inclined to hold off and see whether Criterion release the film on DVD.


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