Baron Prášil (Czechoslovakia 1961)

Rating: ***
Alternate Titles: "The Fabulous Baron Munchausen", "The Outrageous Baron Munchausen"
Review Date: 9/7/15
Director: Karel Zeman
Cast: Milos Kopecký

Visionary filmmaker Karel Zeman's version of the Baron Munchausen fable is a delightfully bizarre tale of fantastical whimsy. Tony is an astronaut who lands on the moon. Much to his surprise, he discovers what appear to be human footsteps, so he follows them and runs into a strange party of characters including the infamous liar, Baron Munchausen (Milos Kopecký). The baron is amused by this unusual "moon man," so he decides to take him back to Earth as a curiosity for a Turkish sultan. While in the sultan's palace, Tony falls in love with the captive Princess Bianca and engineers her escape. The baron also vies for the princess's affection, but she only has eyes for Tony, which sets up a romantic rivalry between the male leads. Putting aside their differences, the three of them manage to escape the sultan's palace and end up on a merchant ship that gets swallowed by a giant whale. More silliness ensues until Tony and Bianca escape back to the stars with a little help from the baron.

It's an interesting variation on the Baron Munchausen tale, as director Zeman wanted to differentiate his film from the 1943 German version. It's a beautiful film that's reminiscent of a story book, and most of it is filmed in monochrome with accents of color here and there. It has all the charm of a Ray Harryhausen fantasy, and utilizes stop motion animation, traditional cel animation, miniatures, puppets, forced perspective, matte paintings, split frame compositions, deliberately artificial backgrounds, and nearly every other film trick in the business. While it's aesthetically attractive, the art direction is questionable and much of the film doesn't make sense visually. One could argue that it fits the fantastical tone of the story, but it's still hard to reconcile some of the more outrageous stylistic elements. Milos Kopecký makes a wonderful Baron Munchausen (or Prášil in the original Czech) and is charming throughout, and Princess Bianca is also quite lovely. She also gets the most bizarre and unsettling scene in the film, when a serpent sneaks up on Tony with an apple in its mouth, and she dismisses it with a single glance and a simple wave of her hand. It's obviously a biblical reference, but what does it represent and how does it relate to the story? What hidden power does she have? It also came out of nowhere and disappeared just as quickly. Very odd. The dialog is dry and the pacing is a bit sluggish, but those who admire the unique artistic style and appreciate the time and skill that goes into this kind of filmmaking will almost certainly find it a rewarding experience.