The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Baron Prasil) Review
An intoxicating blend of live-action and animation, Karel Zeman's The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Baron Prášil) is fantasy cinema to escape into amid the chaos of the outside world. There's a wealth of brilliant images and scenarios to enjoy - from the opening trip to the moon to a sequence inside a whale to a dynamic sword fight and one treat after the next elsewhere. It's almost certainly Second Run's most inviting entry in a rich catalog (including Zeman's later film A Jester's Tale) brimming with outstanding yet often challenging titles. This movie is pretty special in its universality. Dialogue is minimal and the story is so episodic as to seem secondary. It feels a bit like a silent movie, down even to the tinting Zeman used throughout the picture.
Zeman had been working continuously for about fifteen years on shorts and a handful of features from his base in Zlin, a Czech city remote enough to prevent any real interference from the Prague studio men who were financing the work. He started doing advertisements for a shoe company, ended up creating a popular recurring character named Mr. Prokouk for a series of shorts, and finally jumped into features with Treasure on Bird Island (1952), the Jules Verne-inspired A Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955) and the Verne adaptation The Deadly Invention (1958). By the time The Fabulous Baron Munchausen rolled out in 1961, Zeman had reasonably established himself and his unique style, though perhaps not quite to the level of success that we see with this film.
Working from the original writings by Gottfried August Bürger and later variations from Gustave Doré, Zeman makes the Munchausen stories depicting a larger-than-life figure prone to spinning fantastic tales into the perfect vehicle for dazzling feats of animation inside an ostensibly live-action frame. The opening section on the moon manages to feel like legitimate sci-fi of its time while a later scene with a woman dancing alongside a bunch of grapes comes off as almost innocently erotic. The shifts aren't necessarily tonal so much as a flexing of filmmaking capabilities, showcased via the perfect source material. What one can immediately discern even from just watching these two features directed by Zeman and now available from Second Run is that he was a master at world building. It's no wonder Terry Gilliam, whose Monty Python animations seem heavily indebted to Zeman, is a vocal fan.
The viewing experience that accompanies Munchausen is absolutely delightful. How can it not be? There's a tremendous artificiality that charms the viewer from start to finish. Opening titles are against a tinted yellow background as part of Zdenek Liska's score plays. Blue tints are followed by red tints and so on, where the visual elements almost don't need a narrative to capture our attention. If pressed, too, there's actually a story of sorts involving the character Tony (Rudolf Jelinek), a spaceman brought back to Earth, and beautiful Princess Bianca (Jana Brejchova). Munchausen (played by Milos Kopecky) provides voiceover throughout the picture, and constantly disparages Tony (at least in part because he clearly has an interest in Bianca himself).
Filmmaking is a visual medium and Karel Zeman was aces at this, with this film as one of his obvious pinnacles in a career that only included a handful of features. A collection of his short films would be intriguing, especially since we see so many clips in the included documentary, but the artistry on display here is tough to match. Comparisons end up just checking off the most notable animators and none seem entirely apt. This is such a wondrous film. The critical eye towards analysis may seem a little sidestepped throughout the wealth of supplements on this release but the experience probably doesn't require it. It's enough to instead appreciate what's on screen and, to a lesser extent, how it got there.
Second Run brings The Fabulous Baron Munchausen to region-free Blu-ray (with a concurrent DVD release also available). It's probably the most ambitious release Second Run has ever done at least in terms of supplements. Length-wise, the extras nearly double the running time of the feature. Plus there's a 16-page booklet inside the case.
The HD presentation comes from a new 4K restoration of the film and it is offered in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio. This film has such an out of time quality that makes for a unique viewing experience. The tinted colours look exceptional and nicely pop off the screen. Evidence of any damage has been thoroughly removed while still retaining a thin layer of grain in the image. Detail is likely as strong as it's ever been with this film. Seeing the layers of depth more clearly makes for an even greater appreciation of Zeman's mastery of perspective.
Audio comes via a Czech language 2.0 Dual Mono LPCM track that is most notable for how it seamlessly presents the excellent Zdenek Liska score. There isn't a tremendous amount of dialogue spoken on screen so it's really the eclectic and intriguing music that perks up the ears. It's rendered cleanly and without issue on the track. English subtitles are optional.
The real surprise to the disc is the breadth of extra features Second Run has tacked onto this release. To start things off, there's a feature-length documentary from 2015 on the director entitled "Film Adventurer Karel Zeman (102 mins.) that features interviews with Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, and Koji Yamamura, as well as those who were close to Zeman. It has a framing device where film students are assigned to re-create parts of Zeman's work, and that production is interspersed throughout interviews about the director and his career.
Michael Brooke adds a video essay called "Facts and Fibs" (36:11) that spends a good deal of time on the history of the Baron Munchausen stories and then gets to the film at hand, with special attention given to Liska's score.
A collection of featurettes, clearly made some time ago, bounce around some of the same information and footage from the longer documentary. These six pieces are: "The Birth of a Film Legend" (5:10), "Karel Zeman and the World" (5:05), "Why Zeman Made the Film" (3:46), "The Cast" (2:22), "Zeman's Special Effects Techniques" (1:49), and "Karel Zeman, the Legend Continues" (3:30).
There's also a trailer (1:40) and a short look (1:17) at the Museum Karel Zeman.
A 16-page booklet included with the release has an essay by Graham Williamson that touches on various aspects of Zeman's background and this particular film.