Color, 1961, 84 mins. 49 secs.
Directed by Karel Zeman
Starring Milos Kopecký, Rudolf Jelínek, Jana Brejchová, Karel Höger, Eduard Kohout
Second Run (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL), Museum Karel Zeman (Blu-ray & DVD) (Czech R0 HD/PAL)
Easily one of the greatest fantasy and animation filmmakers of all time, Czech pioneer Karel Zeman has long been considered a cinematic giant throughout much of Europe but is still under-appreciated in the United States due to the mangled, dubbed versions of many of his films issued as disposable kiddie fare. In fact these are witty, complex, visually dazzling fantasias appropriate for all ages, and the restoration of his output (all of which is of incredibly high quality) is doing its part to keep his legend alive for new generations. One of his key films is The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Baron Prásil), Zeman's fourth feature film and the ideal progression from his previous 1958 masterpiece, The Deadly Invention (also shown as The Fabulous Jules Verne). This film's stunning flights of fancy utilize Zeman's trademark mastery of combining live action and animated elements together in the frame, along with vibrant color tints, to create an effect like a rich, vintage storybook come to life on the screen. It's a technique that still looks astonishing on the big screen, and it translates perfectly to home theater viewing as well.
One of the many filmed versions of Rudolf Erich Raspe's satirical 1785 fantasy Baron Munchausen's Narrative of His Marvelous Travels and Campaigns in Russia (also famously adapted by such filmmakers as Georges Méliès, Josef von Báky, and Terry Gilliam), the episodic story charts the adventures of Baron Munchausen (Kopecký), a flamboyant German nobleman who surprises an astronaut, Tonik (Jelinek), upon his arrival on the moon. As it turns out, Munchausen and some other familiar literary characters made it to space far earlier, and Munchausen offers to take the new arrival back to earth -- but in a different time period where they become entangled in fanciful adventures involving nautical creatures, Turkish armies, a Sultan, and complicated romance with a beautiful princess (Brejchová).
For a film that was once impossible to see in prime condition, Munchausen has certainly had a big turnaround in recent years. A restored Czech DVD edition with optional English subtitles was released in 2012 by the Museum Karel Zeman, and since then it's hit Blu-ray in no less than three different editions. The first in 2016 was a Zeman triple feature alongside Invention for Destruction and Journey to the Beginning of Time, though cramming the three films onto one BD-50 with lossy Dolby Digital audio didn't sit so well with some consumers. That disc's bonus material for this film includes "The Birth of a Film Legend" (4m57s) about Zeman's early days, "Why Karel Zeman Made the Film" (3m37s), "The Cast" (2m17s), "His Best Special Effects" (two shorts running 1m and 51s respectively), "Karel Zeman, the Legend Continues" (3m21s), a promo for the museum (1m14s), the Clarinet Factory music slideshow "The Land of Moonlight" (4m42s), and the extended museum and music gallery "Enter the World of Film Effects and Fantasy" (8m8s).
In mid-2016, both this film and The Deadly Invention were reissued as separate Blu-rays from the Museum Karel Zeman with heftier bit rates and DTS-HD MA Czech audio tracks, still with optional English subs. Extras on that release include the brief restoration demo "Showreel - Restoring a World of Fantasy" (2m34s), a Terry Gilliam interview called "Karel Zeman and the World" (5m5s), a newly-created trailer, the museum promo, and "The Making of Baron Munchausen" (5m13s), an archival Zeman interview about the techniques he explored with this film. It's worth noting that all of the featurettes on both releases are presented in SD.
However, the release to top them all is the separate Blu-ray and DVD edition in the UK from Second Run, who previously issued Zeman's marvelous A Jester's Tale on DVD (and which would make a nice Blu-ray upgrade... hint, hint). As with the other restored Zeman transfers commissioned by the Karel Zeman Museum in recent years, the restored 4K-sourced transfer is absolutely stunning with very fine detail, gorgeous colors, and a convincingly rich, cinematic appearance that will have you freeze framing frequently just to admire the visual intricacy on display. The LPCM Czech mono audio track with optional English subtitles is also excellent. The biggest extra here is definitely Film Adventurer Karel Zeman (101m48s), an excellent feature-length documentary previously issued as a standalone Czech DVD but presented here in full HD as well. It's a very entertaining piece and a good intro to this filmmaker's startling work, with admirers like Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Boris Misnik, Kosei Ono, and Karel Smyczek among the contributors with tons of film clips on display. (Some of the featurettes on the two Czech releases were basically excerpts or outtakes from this film.) The new, exclusive "Facts and Fibs: Michael Brooke on Baron Munchausen" (36m11s) is an excellent, thorough dissection of the origins of the Munchausen character (including the real-life namesake who wasn't so amused), his international popularity and various translations, his creative legacy in other media, and the significance of this film with its emphasis on the relationship and science within the character's history. Ported over from the Czech versions are "The Birth of a Film Legend," "Karel Zeman and the World," "Why Zeman Made the Film," "The Cast," the trailer, museum promo, and "Karel Zeman, the Legend Continues," plus "Zeman's Special Effects Techniques" (1m49s) from a separate extras section on that triple feature disc. The package also comes with liner notes by critic Graham Williamson, "The Universal Language of Karel Zeman," which charts Zeman's progression from puppet animator to full-fledged filmmaker; he also points out the origins of the Munchausen story and influence of the classic carved illustrations by Gustave Doré, as well as the satirical intentions of story, the presence of other literary characters dotted throughout the film, and the influence on such surprising filmmakers as Joshua Oppenheimer and Matthew Barney.
Reviewed on July 22, 2017.