Breathtaking visuals, goofy humor, and a sly deconstruction of kids’ fantasy movies.
Time Bandits hit theaters in 1981, riding the wave of fantasy blockbusters at the time, so much that many dismissed it as just another fantasy flick, its only novelty being appearances from former Monty Python-ers. Today, however, we know that the film was a breakout work from director Terry Gilliam (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), who has since become the great Hollywood maverick, the rebel fantasist who is constantly fighting the system to pursue his vision of combined visual splendor and biting satire.
Some people love Time Bandits for how out there it is, while others hate Time Bandits for how out there it is. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that it is pure Gilliam.
Kevin (Craig Wornock, To The Lighthouse) is a little boy who loves history and whose parents do nothing but watch TV game shows. One evening, a knight in shining armor bursts through a door and rides through Kevin’s bedroom. This event is followed by the arrival of the Time Bandits, six adventurers who have stolen the map of the universe and are traveling through time to rob treasures from the past.
Kevin joins this group on their adventures, only to discover they stole the map from the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson, Dr. Zhivago), who wants it back. They’re also pursued by the Evil Genius (David Warner, Titanic), who seeks the map for his own sinister ends.
Time Bandits can be a tough movie to figure out. On the surface, it’s a fun romp, with a lot of jokes and far-out fantasy visuals. Under the surface, though, things get more complicated. I am somewhat reminded of the films of Edgar Wright, in how Shaun of the Dead is a zombie spoof that also works as a real zombie movie, or how Hot Fuzz is an action movie spoof that’s also a bona fide action movie. (See also The Incredibles and the superhero genre.) With that in mind, I posit that Time Bandits is a whimsical children’s movie, but one that simultaneously rips apart whimsical children’s movies.
For most of the running time, Time Bandits plays like sketch comedy, with the shadow of Monty Python looming large over the production. Michael Palin (A Fish Called Wanda) and Shelley Duvall (The Shining) appear as a pair of imperfect lovers, Ian Holm (From Hell) plays Napoleon as the butt of short jokes, and John Cleese (Fawlty Towers) portrays a perfectly-dressed feather-capped Robin Hood contrasted against the harshness of daily life in the Middle Ages. While these skits play out, the Time Bandits rob stuff while Kevin is more innocently enamored of the historic figures. It’s all funny and slapstick, but, like I said, there’s more going on under the surface.
The Time Bandits’ arc throughout the film is seemingly simple — they begin greedy, stealing the map and then stealing treasure. Through the interactions with Kevin, they eventually become good guys, leading the fight against the Evil Genius. All of this is standard family adventure stuff — think Han Solo returning at the last second during the Death Star battle. Once the action is over, though, Gilliam and company subvert our expectations. When reunited with the Supreme Being, the Time Bandits aren’t rewarded for their newfound heroism, which is how most movies of this kind would end. Instead, the Supreme Being returns them to the menial jobs they initially desired to escape from, at a reduced pay no less.
A similar moment occurs when Kevin, after briefly separated from the bandits, is befriended by King Agamemnon (Sean Connery, Goldfinger). The king becomes an adopted father for Kevin, showering him with riches and promising him a better life. In most movies of this kind, there would be a twist in which Kevin sees through this new life and realizes that what he really wants is to go home. This is not so in Time Bandits. Here, Kevin is perfectly happy to stay, not caring one bit about his stuffy old parents back in the present. If the Time Bandits hadn’t reentered his life for more zaniness, the movie might have ended at that point. The filmmakers would seem to agree, as Connery reappears later in the film, still representing the ideal for which Kevin longs.
All this leads to the movie’s infamous ending. No, not the good versus evil climax, which is full of Òaction-liteÓ antics, but the film’s final few minutes — an abrupt, tonally jarring scene that leaves viewers confused and wondering what just happened, in opposition to the usual Spielbergian happy ending so typical of fantasy films of this era. This conclusion has baffled many who have seen the movie over the years. I myself have seen it many times, and I’m still not sure what to make of it. On the commentary, Gilliam even admits how different viewers have had different reactions. All that being said, it’s a good thing that this is the end. Such a bizarre ending makes the film stand out, it reaffirms that this is no mere children’s movie, but has a lot more on its mind.
Of course, no discussion of Time Bandits is complete without mention of the visuals. While earlier films Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Jabberwocky, not mention those great Monty Python TV animations Ñ showed hints of Gilliam’s directorial style, it was Time Bandits that introduced the world to the Gilliam ÒlookÓ in a big, bold way: large, stark sets populated by colorful characters casting huge shadows across the surfaces. Tattered banners and frayed ropes populating the costumes and backgrounds. Cloaked characters wandering around blue-metal corridors. When the characters enter the Òtime of myth,Ó we even get the iconic image of a giant rising from the ocean, wearing a boat like a hat. Gilliam taps into fantasy visuals in a way few other filmmakers can, and each locale the Time Bandits visit is rich with these vibrant, otherworldly sights.
The folks at the Criterion Collection have done their usual bang-up job on Time Bandits, which sports a brand new 2K restoration supervised by Gilliam himself. The picture is razor sharp, alive with detail and color. The audio is in its original, uncompressed 2.0 stereo. Sure, a full-on 5.1 mix would have been nice, but maintaining the original is appreciated as well.
Fans of this movie have likely already heard the commentary track, which was originally recorded for the laserdisc. It’s nonetheless a great listen, as Gilliam, Warner, and a now-adult Wornock all contribute separately, their comments edited together. New to this Blu-ray is a featurette looking back at the creation of the costumes and the location shooting. Another highlight is a more than hour-long Q&A with Gilliam from 1998, where he discussed several of his films and life in general, and it’s a great experience spending this time with him. There is also a short TV interview with Shelley Duvall from the time of the movie’s release, and a still gallery. The package includes a fold-out poster that’s a replica of the Time Bandits’ map, with an essay about the movie printed on the other side.
The bonus features talk at great length about the distinct individual personalities of the six Time Bandits. This isn’t as evident in the finished product, however, as the six little people in the roles tend to come across as a singular group rather individuals. Other than Randall (Michael Rappaport), who is the de facto leader and the one who becomes closest friend to Kevin, we only get the slightest hints of who the others are. Fidgit (Kenny Baker, Star Wars) is the friendly one, Strutter (Malcolm Dixon) is the wisecracker, Wally (Jack Purvis) is the brawler, Og (Mike Edmonds) is the one off to the side who almost never speaks, and Vermin (Tiny Ross) is the gluttonous one. All six guys are fun and likable in the movie, but their characters had been fleshed out a little more, Time Bandits would have been an even richer experience.
Mom, dad, don’t touch that Not Guilty verdict! It’s pure evil!