NEW YORK — TERRY GILLIAM is best known as the only American member of Monty Python, the British comedy group. He's also the one member who never appeared in person, instead providing the wacky animations that kept popping into their TV show. As a filmmaker, Mr. Gilliam has cultivated a live-action style that's still proudly cartoonlike. And as director for pictures like ``Time Bandits'' and ``Brazil,'' he concocted a nonstop flow of visions, fantasies, and dreams that flooded the screen with vigor and invention. In some ways, ``The Adventures of Baron Munchausen'' is Mr. Gilliam's most flamboyant creation yet. To call it larger than life is an understatement - it's downright gigantic in every department, from its exuberant performances to its pulsating colors and unstinting energy. Even with all this going for it, though, the movie doesn't quite succeed. In the end, it's more tiring than triumphant.
The tale begins in the 18th century - it's ``the age of reason,'' a caption informs us - during a war that's anything but reasonable. In a European city that's besieged by Turkish troops, a theater company is presenting its latest diversion, an account of Baron Munchausen's mythical adventures. Suddenly, who shows up but the real baron, telling the players they've got things all wrong. He's willing to set their story straight, a favor they're not eager to receive. Since he's an unstoppable yarn-spinner, we're soon caught up in his account of one impossible feat after another.
The movie announces its epic intentions from the beginning. Gilliam's camera soars, swoops, dives, and runs rings around its subjects, bestowing a heroic importance on everything it encounters - much of which is pretty heroic to begin with, since the story's basic setting is full of ferocious combat, insidious politics, and (somehow surviving side-by-side with all this) the zany theatrics that interest Baron Munchausen more than anything else in sight.
For sheer spectacle, ``The Adventures of Baron Munchausen'' is unbeatable by any other film in recent memory. The plot is full of whimsy and magic, whether our hero is riding a cannonball through the skies, reminiscing in the belly of a fish, or matching wits with the King of the Moon, whose (intellectual) head is conveniently detachable from his (lusty) body. What's missing, though, is a sense of lightness, of ease, of humor as opposed to labored ingenuity and monumental cuteness. The movie sweats and strains to earn our affection. There's not a relaxed moment in it, and after a while you feel as if Gilliam and Co. had grabbed you by the lapels (like the inescapable Munchausen himself) and won't let go until you laugh and have a good time whether you feel like it or not.
While the film's trouble stems partly from its visual style, there are also problems with the screenplay. Written by Charles McKeown and Gilliam, it just isn't funny most of the time. The casting also contibutes to the difficulty. John Neville looks and sounds right in the title role, but his performance smacks more of makeup and costuming than real, human charm. Gilliam regular Jonathan Pryce is priceless, as usual, but his small role as a political bad guy doesn't let him develop the comic mannerisms he has wielded so well in the past.
Python member Eric Idle suffers from a similar problem, although he provides some of the picture's few moments of laid-back laughter. In the spirit of the proceedings, talented performers like Oliver Reed and Bill Paterson seem to be working too hard to enjoy themselves. Ditto for Robin Williams, who puts his usual hyperactivity into an (uncredited) turn as the moon-king.
Other names in the cast, including Sting and Valentina Cortese, make little impression, although young Sarah Polley is likable as the baron's little-girl sidekick.
I don't mean to come down on ``The Adventures of Baron Munchausen'' too strongly. Many moviegoers may be captivated by its sweeping ambition, its visual lavishness, and its determination to be the most extravagant film comedy since ``It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World'' ended an era of overblown Hollywood farce. I sorely missed the sense of childlike wonder that charged through Gilliam's earlier ``Time Bandits,'' though, and the sardonic social commentary that enriched ``Brazil,'' his most underrated movie.