Sunday, November 9, 2008

Review of Baron Prasil

One of my favorite films growing up was “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” (1988), a rambling tall tale based on the notoriously exaggerated adventures of a German baron in the Russian war against the Turks. Historical setting takes backstage to impossible flights of fancy, including a sojourn in the sultan’s palace, trips to the moon, romance in a volcano and a journey inside a sea monster.

The film has its share of flaws, including a particularly grotesque performance by Robin Williams (over-the-top even by his standards) as the king of the moon, but I love its creativity, circuitousness, and cackling celebration of plot holes. One particularly long flashback, narrated by the baron, ends with his death and funeral. He explains to his confused audience that it “was only one of the many occasions on which I met my death, an experience I don’t hesitate to strongly recommend.”

Director Terry Gilliam obviously sympathies with the baron’s character, championing his underdog fight against the burgeoning age of reason. Yet similar to the baron’s impossible ambitions, Gilliam’s reach exceeded his grasp [as usual] and the film became an infamous box-office failure. I still consider it one of my favorites, but I now regard it as somewhat inferior to it’s earlier influence: the 1961 Czech adaptation “Baron Prasil.”

“Baron Prasil” (1961) begins with a modern astronaut named Joe arriving on the moon, only to discover that’s he’s already been beaten by the likes of Jules Verne, Baron Munchausen and Cyrano de Bergerac, who toast to the new arrival from their lunar-Victorian dinner table. The baron invites Joe onto his Pegasus-drawn frigate for an interstellar traipse back to terrestrial territory.

[Images: Not that it makes any sense otherwise, but if you look closely, one of the pegasi is actually a wooden toy horse.]

They head to the sultan’s palace where they both fall in love with a kidnapped maiden. Their romantic rescue leads to war with the Turks and a globe-trotting adventure across land and sea.

[Image: The jaded sultan wiggles his grapes, it’s movements mirrored by his belly dancer.]

Fans of Gottfried August Burger’s humorous tales will recognize many of the baron’s most famous exploit, such as riding a cannonball over a battlefield and residing in the belly of a sea monster.

[Images: Funny, I don’t remember the pyramids having an ocean so near by.]

The baron considers himself a dashing, idolized mentor for the shy astronaut, but becomes a somewhat bitter rival after their mutual love interest shows greater affection for Joe. However, he comes to recognize Joe as something of a fellow fantasist who indulges in such crazy ideas as steam power, rocketry and science. Joe eventually mellows out, too, and immerses himself in the baron’s illogical ingenuity. The two ultimately return to the moon by exploding a castle, this time to claim it not for the scientists, generals and politicians, but for the dreamers, poets and lovers.

[Image: An amphibious steamboat with a picture of Adam and Eve that comes to life.]

Director Karel Zeman is something of a forgotten master, a creative workhorse and special effects prodigy in the vein of Ray Harryhausen. Zeman started his career as a pioneer of animation and stop-motion techniques, throwing live-action actors and sets into the mix as he moved into feature filmmaking. Zeman's other works include "The Fabulous World of Jules Verne" (the only other one I've seen) and "Journey to the Beginning of Time."

A master of forced perspective, Zeman created countless shots that brought the impossible to life in startling, imaginative compositions.

Like with Harryhausen, Tom Savini and Cronenberg, it’s sometimes hard to tell if the plot necessitated the effects or if an idea for an effect guided the direction of the story. Yet even though the movie is carpeted with wall-to-wall camera tricks, it remains a beautiful and endearing story with a creative fast-paced narrative, an unforgettable characterization of Munchausen and a family-friendly promoter of confidence, resourcefulness and imagination.

[Image: The baron, astride his seahorse in an ocean of wine, receives his jacket from a coat hanger hooked on a swordfish.]

The mixed-media presentation is particularly noteworthy, with Zeman designing sets to look like pen-and-ink drawing to better mesh with his illustrated embellishments. Many segments use animation, stop-motion, rear-project, tinting and matting, sometimes with color and black-and-white in the same image.


[Images: A castle fort bristling with cannons, before and during battle.]

One memorable sequence portrays an unfathomably large army bearing down on the protagonists as a crimson cloud of liquid consuming the frame. Much of the distinctive flavor of “Baron Prasil” comes from similar rejections of literalism and realism.

Portions of the style are imitating by Gilliam’s version (the cardboard moon city in particular) and were purportedly major influences on his earlier work (see, for instance, the animated digressions in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “The Life of Brian”). Yet aside from rare exceptions like Gilliam, “Labyrinth,” “Paperhouse,” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” Zeman seems to have left few artistic progeny and his brand of inspired eclecticism is now treated as obsolete gimmickry.

“Lord of the Rings” took forced perspective to the next level with its hobbits, dwarfs and giants (the frequent continuity errors caused by having moving characters and cameras never really disrupt the illusion), and yet the rash of “me too” fantasy epics which look shiny but play out like dead-eyed dolls reciting Tolkein fanfic makes me think producers are just as scared of originality as ever. I blame the “safeguards” deemed necessarily for most huge-budget, highly-collaborative effort for systematically turning great novels like the Narnia series and “The Golden Compass” into mediocre films. I can only cross my fingers and hope that “Watchmen” and “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” won’t be similarly drained of their personality and verve.

[Image: Force perspective makes it difficult to tell which pillars are real and which fake on sets that Zeman could never actually afford.]

Well, at least it means kids still have good reason to read. And while you parents are buying them books (you ARE buying them books and reading to them, RIGHT?), get them a copy of “Baron Prasil” from over at AllCluesNoSolutions. They’ll grow up to be better people and maybe they’ll stop nagging you to take them to the next 90-minute pokemon-of-the-moment commercial or brainless sequel to a spinoff of a remake of a film that was honestly pretty crappy back in 1932 and 1959.

Walrus Rating: 9.5

9 comments:

exactly why said...

I've always been a fan of Gilliam's Munchausen, so I'll definitely have to seek this one out. Out of curiosity, how do you feel about other versions of the story, like the lavish 1943 German "Munchhausen" - which I think is worth a watch if only for its off-kilter opening sequence?

On a literary note, fans of tall tales of this sort should check out Lucian's similarly themed second century Greek novella, "A True Story": http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/luc/true/index.htm

Mad Dog said...

Uggghhhhh... this is barely related to your review, but I have to speak my mind on it. I can't in all honesty call The Golden Compass a great movie. It definitely missed the mark. BUT. I can see all the parts that made it to the screen crafted with such care. The protagonist and Nicole Kidman do fantastic jobs. The effects are really great (minus Eva Green's stupid flying). The production design's great. It's just that the movie seems like an edited-for-TV-timeslot version of what it was really supposed to be. If movies like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone can be 2.5+ hours, why can't The Golden Compass? An extra half hour would've made it truly good. I suppose I have a weakness at times for seeing the movie that could've been rather than the movie that was (e.g. Hulk).

But anyways, about the movie you actually reviewed. Of course I didn't even know this existed! I'll have to queue it up. But I worry my innate effects whore preferences will still put Baron Munchausen on top.

Walrus said...

Molly,

I intended to see the 1943 version before putting up this post, but hadn't gotten around to it. I hear very good things about it, though. And thanks for the greek texts recommendation, too, which might actually have out-nerded me.

Mad Dog,

I'm with you on your Golden Compass sentiments. I felt like every five minutes my opinion of it was hairpining. And it does succeed as eye candy if nothing else. And don't worry about preferring Gilliams! I love them both!

Patrick said...

SHOW ME THIS NOW.

Patrick said...

Please.

Walrus said...

Pat,

Sure. My schedule has lots of room in it. Come on over pre-Thursday and we'll watch it.

Patrick said...

Hahaha, cool. I'll see what my evenings look like tomorrow and Wednesday (tonight I have to work). I may bring a friend if we do find a good night and that's okay with you.

exactly why said...

I choose to be flattered. I've got to use that classics degree somehow.

Walrus said...

I watched the 1943 Munchausen and wasn't much impressed. In its defense, it's hard to cast a handsome swashbuckling lead and expend on lavish special effects and set pieces when your losing a world war.

But the costumes were fantastic at least.