Time Bandits (United Kingdom , 1981)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Ever wondered what Dorothy's trip along the Yellow Brick Road might have been like if, instead of traveling with the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, she had been accompanied by H.G. Welles, Roald Dahl, and Monty Python? Or how C.S. Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia" might have looked if, instead of being an allegorical fantasy dream of good triumphing over evil, it had been an allegorical fantasy nightmare of good triumphing over evil? For a possible depiction of both of those unlikely scenarios, you need look no further than Terry Gilliam's outlandish 1981 comedy-fantasy-adventure, Time Bandits.

Over the years, I have debated (with myself, of course, since no one else would listen) which of Terry Gilliam's non-Python films represents his best work. The choice comes down to Time Bandits or Brazil. While I concede that the latter is more ambitious and sophisticated, I like Time Bandits better. Plus, with Brazil, there's the added distraction of the story about the film overshadowing the story told in the film. (The 1985 picture has become the poster child for studios interference.)

Time Bandits retains a strong Monty Python flavor, which is not surprising, considering that it was only one of two films made by Gilliam during the period before the comedy troupe disbanded. (I prefer to pretend that the other, Jabberwocky, does not exist.) Time Bandits was made in between The Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life, was co-written by Gilliam and Michael Palin, and features cameos by Palin and John Cleese. However, whereas the Python movies are more readily appreciated by the over-15 crowd, Time Bandits was designed as a family film, with the intention that children, teenagers, and adults would all find something to enjoy.

The film's adventure aspects are designed more with younger viewers in mind, although they are not so juvenile as to put off the more erudite members of the audience. Many of the historical and mythological references will escape those whose ages are in the single digits, but will be immediately recognizable to everyone else (the characters and settings are not obscure). The comedy spans the generations, with plenty of overt moments that will cull laughter from nearly anyone, and numerous instances of barbed satire and amusing cleverness that only the older viewers will fully appreciate. One example of how different aged audience members will see things differently applies to Michael Palin's Vincent. Kids will laugh because he acts silly. Adults will laugh because of the ribald intimations of what he says while he's acting silly.

The storyline is one of good against evil – sort of. Time Bandits opens by introducing us to Kevin (Craig Warnock), an average boy who spends a lot of time reading as a means of escape from a dreary home life and neglectful, uncaring parents who would rather watch TV game shows than spend time with him. Like many children, Kevin has a wardrobe in his bedroom, and, as in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," it becomes a portal into a fantastic world of adventure. One night, while Kevin is in bed, a group of six time-traveling dwarves invade Kevin's room via the wardrobe. Before he fully comprehends what's happening, he is whisked along with them through a hole in time as they seek to flee the Supreme Being (a.k.a. God).

It seems that the dwarves are actually thieves who once worked for God. After growing tired of their old jobs, they stole His map of the universe, which shows all of the holes in time, and decided to become master criminals. Understandably, the Supreme Being wants His map back. And there's also a being called Evil Genius (David Warner) who wants it for his own nefarious purposes. Meanwhile, the seven pint-sized Time Bandits use it to skip from era to era, usually doing a lot more fleeing than stealing. Their first stop is Napoleon's court, where the Emperor (Ian Holm) is delighted to find someone smaller than himself. Then it's on to Sherwood Forest, where an ultra-polite Robin Hood (John Cleese) relieves them of the loot they took from Napoleon. Other vignettes include a trip on the Titanic (and into the water), a stop in the court of King Agamemnon (Sean Connery), an encounter with an Ogre with a bad back (Peter Vaughan), and the showdown with Evil Genius.

Gilliam lets his imagination run riot, exploring the diversity of a large number of very different settings. The most impressive of these is Evil Genius' dark fortress, which resembles something out of a nightmare, and comes complete with all the accoutrements one would expect from this kind of place: a giant maze; huge, twisted stone columns; oversized bird cages hanging over an endless abyss; and lots of fog.

Much of the movie was filmed using a low-placed camera to simulate a child's point-of-view. This approach makes sense for several reasons. In addition to giving younger viewers a familiar vantage point, it makes everything seem larger than life. Also, considering that all of the protagonists are less than four feet tall, it's the best way to make sure they're in the shots. There are more dwarves here than in any film since The Wizard of Oz.

Time Bandits can be seen as a cautionary tale about society's growing over-reliance upon technology. This was obviously one of Gilliam's concerns two decades ago, and can be seen as being more valid today, when television, DVDs, computers, and video games have largely supplanted traditional recreational activities. In Time Bandits, Kevin's parents are more concerned with the gadgets in their kitchen than with their child's well-being. And Evil Genius' plan for domination involves using computers and other high-tech devices.

The cast is obviously one of Time Bandits' selling points, although few of the big name actors have more than extended cameos. The real star is Craig Warnock, who hadn't done anything before Time Bandits and hasn't done much since. Gilliam chose him because he didn't possess the affectations of a "normal" child actor, and, indeed, Warnock lacks the irritating cuteness that one often associates with thespians of his age. His acting skill, while not superlative, is adequate for the part. And he doesn't have to carry the load on his own – he is ably aided by the six dwarf actors who play his accomplices. (They are David Rappaport, Malcolm Dixon, Mike Edmonds, Jack Purvis, Tiny Ross, and Kenny Baker – the last of whom is best known for inhabiting the costume of R2-D2 in the Star Wars movies.)

The most significant support role belongs to David Warner, who obviously relished the opportunity to play this version of the Devil, who's obsessed with conquest and computers, and surrounded by idiot minions. His cosmic opposite is essayed by the legendary Ralph Richardson, in one of his final screen appearances. John Cleese and Michael Palin are on hand in small roles. Sean Connery has a slightly larger one as the good natured King Agamemnon, who wants to adopt Kevin. Ian Holm plays Napoleon for the second time (he had previously portrayed the character in a 1974 mini-series called "Napoleon in Love", and would eventually reprise the part in 2001's The Emperor's New Clothes). Peter Vaughan, Katherine Helmond, and Shelley Duvall also make appearances.

Time Bandits, illustrating the imaginings of children, represents the first film in what has become known as Gilliam's "Dreams Trilogy." Brazil, the middle chapter, depicts the dreams of a middle-aged individual. And The Adventures of Baron Munchausen does something similar for an old man. Although the three films are different in many ways, there is a similarity in underlying tone and style that marks them as the work of one director, and part of an overall vision. Fortunately, it isn't necessary to have seen either of the other movies to appreciate everything that Time Bandits has to offer.

Perhaps the greatest characteristic attributable to Time Bandits is its sense of invention. The movie does so many things, all of them well. At first glance, one would not think of this as a mainstream production, but it made more than $40 million in U.S. theaters (extrapolated using current ticket prices, that's close to $100 million in 2002 terms) – an exceptionally good figure for a "small" film. This, as much as anything, is a testimony to Time Bandits' wide ranging appeal. The blend of quick-moving adventure, familiar faces, lowbrow slapstick, highbrow wit, and visual style offers more than one thing to just about everyone. And, with an ending that mocks the idea of "happily ever after," Time Bandits concludes perfectly. This is a great movie that has only gotten better with the passage of 20 years.

Time Bandits (United Kingdom , 1981)

Ranked #63 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:56
U.S. Release Date: 1981-11-13
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1