Sarah Polley has said that making 1988's Adventures Of Baron Munchausen was "traumatic." After watching The Madness And Misadventures Of Munchausen—a riveting, brutally candid making-of documentary included on Sony's new double-disc DVD set—that seems like an understatement. For a cast and crew saddled with a spiraling budget, endless bad luck, and a sinister German producer who comes off like a cross between Otto Preminger and Uwe Boll, making Munchausen was an experience to be survived rather than savored. All the madness, drama, and waste did pay off creatively, though not financially: Munchausen cost and lost a fortune. But in the hackneyed parlance of show-biz, every dollar is up on the screen in an exquisite cavalcade of wildly imaginative setpieces dreamed up by Gilliam and production designer Dante Ferretti, who picked up the first of eight Oscar nominations for the film.
A massive flop turned cult favorite, Munchausen casts British stage actor John Neville as a legendary tale-spinner who joins forces with precocious moppet Polley and reunites with his trusted band of adventurers to save a city from Turkish invaders. Neville's preposterous quest sends him spinning through fantastic worlds, from a lunar wonderland ruled by the disembodied head of Robin Williams to the insides of a sea creature to the subterranean lair of the Roman God Vulcan (Oliver Reed).
Munchausen presents its fantasist hero as a glorious anachronism, a proponent of wonder in an age of reason and rationality. In that respect, he mirrors Gilliam's gloriously old-fashioned cinematic fantasia, which boasts a retro charm and craftsmanship unthinkable in our CGI-addled era. A feast for the eyes, Munchausen solidifies Gilliam's status as a crucial link between the cine-magic of Georges Méliès and the homemade dream-worlds of Michel Gondry. The script is fortified with Python-esque verbal humor, but it wouldn't take much tweaking to transform Munchausen into a silent film. Throw in a naked Uma Thurman at the height of her nubile beauty, and you have a rambling but irresistibly powerful illustration of what the film's terminally practical villain (Jonathan Pryce) sneeringly refers to as "hot air and fantasy."
Key features: The making-of, a less-compelling but still engaging commentary from Gilliam and co-writer Charles McKeown, deleted scenes, and storyboards.