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DVD/Blu-ray: The Fabulous Baron Munchausen | reviews, news & interviews

DVD/Blu-ray: The Fabulous Baron Munchausen

DVD/Blu-ray: The Fabulous Baron Munchausen

Enchanting, surreal romp: one of the greatest fantasy films ever made

Fantasist in a frock coat: Milos Kopecký as Baron Munchausen

Baron Munchausen’s exploits have been filmed before. Terry Gilliam’s star-studded 1988 version floundered thanks to a sub-par script, and there’s an infamous 1943 German adaptation, commissioned by Goebbels. This one, Karel Zeman’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, is far better than both. Completed in 1961, it’s technically stunning. Knowing how Zeman’s tricks were realised doesn’t diminish their brilliance, and one of the bonus features from this Second Run release shows a group of contemporary Czech film students attempting to reproduce iconic moments from the film.

The giant fish in Zeman's Baron Munchausen Baron Munchausen was a real figure, whose tendency to embellish details of his military career led to his name becoming synonymous with the telling of tall tales. Zeman’s boldest intervention was to insert a contemporary character, Rudolf Jelinek’s astronaut Tony. He arrives on a very convincing Moon, wearing a very Kubrickian spacesuit, after an enchanting sequence showing the evolution of flight. Predictably he’s been beaten to it by a motley bunch including Jules Verne, Cyrano de Bergerac and Miloš Kopecký’s Munchausen. Kopecký plays the title character as a suave charmer, at one point derided as "a fantasist in a frock coat". Convinced that Tony is actually a moon resident, Munchausen takes him back to Earth on a ship borne by winged horses, seeking to educate him in human ways.

Picaresque adventures ensue: Jana Brejchová’s Princess Bianca is rescued by Tony from a villainous Turkish Sultan, whose ships are tricked by Munchausen into sinking one another. The visuals are eye-popping: the swallowing of the trio by a giant fish (pictured above right) is one of countless indelible images. Munchausen and Tony compete for Bianca’s attention, the former’s inventions less alluring than Tony’s talk of rockets and technology. They do eventually make it back to the Moon. Where Munchausen tosses his black hat into space, its spinning form resembling a flying saucer.

The Sultan's Palace in Zeman's MunchausenZeman shot the film in colour, though what we see most often is tinted black and white. Gustav Doré’s 19th century engravings are plundered for the backdrops (pictured above), the flesh-and-blood characters moving through an exquisite, stylised world. Animation and live action are fused to striking effect: witness the sequence where Munchausen rides his horse off a cliff and into the sea, or the famous cannonball flight which ends with a visual joke worthy of Tex Avery. This is a film that will rightly inspire awe, but it’s also very, very funny. Watch out for the sliding door, or a scene where Munchausen’s boot gets stuck in a window.

Second Run’s generous extras last more than two hours. Tomás Hodan’s 2015 feature-length documentary Film Adventurer Karel Zeman provides an excellent overview of the director’s long career, including contributions from Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam. Michael Brooke provides a useful history of cinematic Munchausen adaptations, and the bonus shorts include a glimpse at Zeman’s working methods and a visit to the Prague museum established in his honour. Former colleagues remember him with huge affection. And why can’t all booklets be as readable and informative as this one? Superb, in other words. This is one of the greatest, most enchanting fantasy films ever made, and it’s never looked or sounded better.

This is a film that will rightly inspire awe, but it’s also very, very funny

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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