Criterion Reviews: ‘The Fabulous Baron Munchausen’

Before man first landed on the moon, the lunar surface was ripe for colourful interpretation. It has been the source for endless fascination for storytellers since nursery rhymes sang of it being made of cheese. “The moon, my dear, is by nature a curious place,” says one of the curious travellers of Karel Zeman’s space oddity. The Fabulous Baron Munchausen doesn’t stay on the moon for long, but it brings that curiosity back down to earth.

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Munchausen unfolds like a fairytale, from the yellowed pages of its opening credits to the ambitious set-pieces set in an otherworldly re-imagining of Earth. The moon is treated more like an alien planet: unidentified footsteps mark its craters, a gramophone sits on its rocky floor waiting to be played. The astronaut who lands believes he’s the first, only to discover it’s host to the characters of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and another traveller, the titular Baron Munchausen.

“The force that pulls him to the stars is pure imagination,” is how the Baron is described. Imagination is everywhere in Munchausen, too. Its ingenuity is reflected in the Czech director’s refusal to be restricted by budget or technology. Intricate matte paintings provide the scenery for the astronaut’s quest to rescue a damsel in distress in 18th century Turkey—while puppetry animates a hungry whale that swallows the crew’s ship. Zeman deploys a seamless blend between mediums that continually invigorates each scene with wonder. 

Its palette recalls the work of George Méliès with monochromatic scenes bathed in red, yellow or blue that evoke the time in classic cinema when the cells of filmstrips were individually painted or tinted. But this was made in 1962, not 1912, and it’s a testament to its stunning use of practical effects (and its digital restoration) that Munchausen has aged better than most sci-fi films made in this century.

Not one to sell itself short, Munchausen is as fabulous as the name suggests. It’s a constant delight, never failing to dazzle with its inventiveness. The use of smoke, in particular, is a breathtaking standout among a myriad of techniques that heighten the fantasy.

Within its sci-fi adventure is a rich tapestry of influences that has inspired others in turn, including Wes Anderson, Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam. Yet the singular whimsy of Munchausen has rarely been replicated. 

Modern sci-fi has been consumed by the need for realism. The angle of trajectory in a landing needs to be exactly right, or the undiscovered should be approved by scientists’ estimates. But Munchausen is all fantasy and no realism. This is an outlandish voyage in which a man rides an aquatic steed in the depths of the ocean, and space travel is done by horse-drawn airship. Zeman’s sprawling adventure is a relic of resourceful creativity. The ability to conjure up magic out of nothing is innate to storytelling— maybe that practice has been left on the moon.

Criterion Reviews is a series of short 500-word reviews of films released every week by Criterion Channel until the channel officially launches on April 8th. Don’t forget to sign up for the channel and support them!

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