It is the late eighteenth century, the Age of Reason, and the one European city is suffering under the onslaught of a war with the Turks, who are battering the surrounding walls with their cannon fire. Inside, one plucky troupe of actors are attempting to raise the spirits of the townsfolk by putting on their performance of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, but they are struggling against backstage staff who have deserted them, unruly equipment and an audience who have better things to be worrying about and are not shy about voicing their dissatisfaction. Suddenly, onto the stage blusters an elderly gent claiming to be the actual Baron - could this be true?
And more vitally, is it important whether it is true or not? Director and co-writer (with actor Charles McKeown) Terry Gilliam's follow up to the production nightmare that was Brazil proved to be no less exhausting for him or his colleagues, and was effectively buried by the unsympathetic studio after going over budget and over time - not by much, but enough to give Gilliam a poor reputation as a profligate and unwieldy talent. So Baron Munchausen has suffered under the cloud of being seen as a grand folly, all over the place and barely comprehensible, yet it is nothing of the kind; like Brazil, it is a tribute to the power of imagination.
Certainly the film did not find a huge audience to appreciate it, but its cultists have drawn a rich seam of thought-provoking and endlessly inventive entertainment from it. Like Time Bandits, it cannot settle on one scene for long without getting distracted, but the central theme of staying loyal to the worlds of reverie to stave off the approach of death, quite literally in the case of the Baron, grows more moving the further the film progresses. Once the Baron gets his story off the ground, he spins a tall tale of how the battle with the Turks is all his fault due to appropriating all of the Sultan's treasure after winning a bet, and it all spins out of control from there.
This is also a tribute to how a man with a dream, no matter how outlandish, can raise the spirits of everyone who is prepared to listen to him, and so it is with the Baron's four companions, all of whom have special talents such as incredible speed or strength, but would be nothing without him to guide and inspire them. It's tempting to view the Baron as a Gilliam surrogate, as if his creativity is cruelly kept in check by those who have no grasp of how wonderful and liberating a great story well told can be; Jonathan Pryce's city leader, who lives by rationality and enforces the prosaic, could easily be standing in for a studio executive who forced Gilliam to scale down his productions and tried to change them for the worse.
John Neville, who had spent most of his career on the stage, was born to play Munchausen, and brings a breezy and oblivious quality to the role that suits him to a tee. Elsewhere, too, the casting is spot on, with Sarah Polley charmingly providing the encouragement of youth to the old man's easily waylaid plans, Oliver Reed quite superb as Vulcan whose jealousy towards his younger wife (Uma Thurman) is the source of great amusement, and the four friends of the Baron rediscovering their hope by reacquainting themselves with him, just as the city folk do. Dante Ferretti's production design is among the best he ever presented, lending the film a marvelously ramshackle yet captivating look, and Michael Kamen's score is inspirational and in parts really rather lovely; all of this contributes to the lesson that those who wish to drag you down to the everyday, the depressing and dullwitted, are no match for the transforming power of the most potent fantasy. Corny, perhaps, but Gilliam makes you believe it here.