Movie epics come in all shapes and sizes. Some offer stunning visuals, engaging characters, and intense action sequences while others offer emotional depth and dramatic plotlines. Others are just spectacles that use basic film tropes on a grander scale. Regardless of which, certain factors determine whether those films succeed artistically and financially. Some can get high praise from critics and still bomb at the box office or can be panned by critics and become blockbusters. These are two examples of epic films.
The first, “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” directed by Terry Gilliam and released in 1988, is a fantasy adventure about an elderly German aristocrat who embarks on a journey to save a town besieged by the Ottoman army. He recounts the tales and exploits made by him and his band of friends, each with their own unique skills and abilities. The film had a budget of about $46.53 million dollars and received limited distribution in the United States. Despite many of the film’s amazing sets and visuals, along with a talented cast, it was a huge box office flop, grossing only $8.1 million.
The source of “Baron Munchausen’s” financial failure, despite many great reviews, stems from many places including the studio politics in Columbia Pictures at the time with the shakeup of management at the top. Issues I had with the movie were the lackadaisical jokes, which all too often made the film seem like a parody of itself. Gilliam, who had also co-directed “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” employed much of the same dry humor used in Monty Python skits here in this film. But where many of those jokes worked as obvious parodies, they seemed to fall flat in “Baron Munchausen,” which was meant to be as much adventure as it was comedy. If someone were to ask me if the movie was meant to be a fantasy epic, or an adventure comedy, my answer would probably be, “kind of, sort of, a little bit of both.”
It seemed like the film wasn’t sure what it wanted to be, and while many critics were willing to see past that for the movie’s artistic triumphs, it probably didn’t strike as much of a chord with the limited general audience that it had. I’m not saying it was a bad film, it just wasn’t well-marketed as a concept. Today, it has achieved a large cult following and is regarded by many as a visual masterpiece, and I’m inclined to agree with them. Despite occasionally slow placing, the performances kept me engaged and the payoff at the end made for a spectacular experience. Give it a try if you get the chance.
This brings me to the second film, “Avatar,” directed by James Cameron. This was a one-of-a-kind sci-fi epic that was released in theaters in 2009. Its budget was nearly five times the size of “Baron Munchhausen” ($237 million), yet it managed to make back that money 12 times over. How is that possible? Well, not only was the film marketed much better, with a teaser that told us little about the film’s premise but piqued everyone’s curiosity, but it was much more widely distributed. The visuals made for great 3D fodder, something which was less mainstream back when “Munchausen” was released, and the worldbuilding was on such a scale that rivaled other epics like Star Wars.
What also made the film more appealing was the simplicity of the plot: a straightforward story about a soldier who crosses paths with a tribe of alien nomads, learns their ways and comes to adopt their culture, and finally fights to protect them against the very people he once served. If you’ve seen Kevin Costner’s “Dances with Wolves,” then this plot will sound eerily familiar. The film knows what it is and what it wants to be, which ends up working to its advantage. Add stunning visuals and entertaining action sequences, and you get a movie that everyone can enjoy, whether they’re a fan of sci-fi or not.
Of course, the film did have its downsides. As I said, the plot is hardly original, and the cast isn’t there to give Oscar-worthy performances. It’s the sort of film that rides high on its production values and special effects. And while the premise is by the numbers, the setting certainly isn’t. Cameron succeeds in creating a world people never get tired of looking at, giving the movie great replay value as well. No wonder he’s got a sequel set to come out this December, with two more planned later.
“The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” and “Avatar” are very different movies when seen from a direct perspective. One is a fantasy adventure based on a relatively obscure source, while the other is an original sci-fi film that takes inspiration from other epics. But the two films do share the mantle of epic. Everyone who has seen them can agree, whether they liked them or not, they are true spectacles. The visuals they employed were nothing short of revolutionary for their times. Yet while one succeeded commercially, the other didn’t. Even today, there is much debate about what made each film financially successful and unsuccessful. But, circumstance also played a significant role. “Avatar” emerged at a time when people were looking for something new. “Baron Munchausen” on the other hand was an idea that struggled to get off the ground, though it was likely due to bad luck rather than bad marketing. Regardless, both films have earned their places among cult classics, and provide important lessons about how a movie can be great with or without being successful.