Is Time Bandits a children’s movie? It stars a child, and there’s nothing on the face that a child shouldn’t be exposed to. But there are few children’s movies that end with the child confused, his house burnt down, and parents exploded after touching pure evil. This is shortly after a meeting with the Supreme Being, who is indifferent and bureaucratic.
It’s unsettling, but Time Bandits has all the contours and the feeling of a children’s movie. Kevin, our little protagonist, is a disaffected youth. His parents, sitting on furniture covered in plastic and deeply concerned with commercials about appliances, have no time for him. He spends his time reading about the past, about heroes and times of yore.
Which comes in handy when a group of dwarves burst into his bedroom. Through various acts of cowardice and belligerence, they end up pulling him into a time hole and on an adventure throughout the eras. Kevin gets to meet the heroes he admires in books.
The first stop is the Battle of Castiglione, a major victory for Napoleon. The famous general is not on the battlefield, but in a theater watching a Punch and Judy show. Napoleon (Ian Holm) is ill-tempered and obsessed with his height. When he encounters the bandits, (all very small) he immediately makes them his new generals. Then he gets drunk while comparing his height with the famous conquerors of the past. Once he’s passed out, the bandits rob him and the palace, escaping into a new time hole…
This time to Nottingham, where they are captured by Robin Hood and his Merry Men. Robin Hood (John Cleese) is a supercilious fop, and his Merry Men are grotesque scummy thugs. The pattern is set that Kevin will be moving through the past to find his heroes are nothing like the people he reads about in his books. They don’t just have feet of clay but are clay through and through. It would make a dispiriting kind of journey for a young man…
But then he goes through the wrong hole, separates from the bandits, and meets Agamemnon. Kevin’s timely arrival saves Agamemnon’s life, allowing him to slay the Minotaur. The king (in a brief but superior performance by Sean Connery) does not hide Kevin’s part in his victory. He raises him up and names him his heir. It shows that the film has a much more complex view of childhood adulation than the easy “subversive” notion that heroes are crap.
This is typical of director Terry Gilliam’s delightful inability to make a straightforward story. He’s dogged in his determination to not supply easy answers for his characters, or audience. The screenplay was written by Gilliam and fellow Monty Python alum, Michael Palin.
The Bandits are refugees from the Supreme Being’s creation department, using a map with holes in time to loot famous people. This map is coveted by Evil (David Warner) who wants to use it to take over the world and remake it in his image. With his various powers, he contrives to capture the Time Bandits and bring them to his fortress.
The fortress exterior is an extremely impressive bit of modeling, huge in scale. The interior is mostly darkness and has block walls, but there’s never a shot in a Terry Gilliam movie without extensive, and maybe wildly overdone, production design. And Time Bandits is full of marvelous details. My favorite sequence is the dance during the Greek banquet, where the bandits are disguised in elaborate horse and rider costumes. It looks exotic, and authentic, with a kind of texture that one rarely sees in a modern film, directed at any audience.
And there’s a question whether this film is for children. It is certainly from a child’s point of view. Which doesn’t mean it’s about gleeful innocence. Children are at the mercy of the adult world, and Kevin is drawn along on an adventure without agency, or choice, surrounded by very dangerous people who aren’t concerned for him at all. Time Bandits is just as much about the terror of childhood as it is the wonder.
This Criterion 4K release has outstanding visual fidelity. The film was made in the era of practical visual effects, and Gilliam’s movies tend towards the visceral. It all looks beautifully rendered in this new transfer.
Time Bandits is a story about an apparent major struggle between good and evil, where the protagonist can’t make much of a difference. He’s thrown through time and experiences the world of his imagination but can’t change it. It some ways, it’s a child experiencing an adult’s dilemma. You must participate in the world, even if that world is terrible and incomprehensible.
And Kevin is more engaged, even in his fantasy world, than his commercialized parents. It’s pretty heady for a movie that has a foppish Robin Hood, a size-obsessed Napoleon, and an ogre who would eat all the dwarves but for his crippling back problems. It’s a typical Gilliam ploy, intersecting the fantastical with the practical. Time Bandits was his first commercially successful film, but it contains the normal Gilliam concepts. In particular, the horrifying acceptance of the powerful that their complacency made less powerful people miserable. But still, they must carry on.
All Terry Gilliam films are essentially about coping with powerlessness. In Time Bandits, Kevin is dragged on his journey, and when he finds a happy ending, he’s pulled out of it by his co-conspirators. It’s the ultimate lesson: you’re not the captain of your fate. But at least you might have friends.
Time Bandits has been released on 4K UHD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection. The 4K UHD disc only includes the commentary (also on the Blu-ray) recorded in 1997 which has Terry Gilliam, co-writer Michael Palin, and actors John Cleese, David Warner and Craig Warnock. Other video extras, all on the Blu-ray, include archival pieces “Creating the World of Time Bandits” (24 min); “Terry Gilliam and Peter von Bagh” (80 min), which is a conversation about the making of the film; Shelly Duvall on Tomorrow in 1981 (9 min); and a trailer and stills gallery.