Deft Wit and Commentary on Conformity Abounds in ‘Time Bandits’

The first production started under former Beatle George Harrison’s HandMade Films, Terry Gilliam’s eccentric fantasy film Time Bandits is a shining example of the director’s ability to materialize storybook adventures. An early hit for both the studio and Gilliam in 1981, its worldwide success helped finance numerous great British productions, and enabled Gilliam’s troubled but lauded dream project Brazil to be realized. While Time Bandits does not rank among Gilliam’s best films, it was crucial in establishing his singular vision early in his career, and remains a humorous and imaginative film in its own right.

Written by Michael Palin (who also features in a small role) and Gilliam, the film balances the strengths of both writers, combining the former’s deft wit and the latter’s commentary on suburban conformity and worship of consumer goods. Gilliam also explores themes that would reappear in his later films as well, such as alienation and escapism. Aside from the strong supporting cast which lends its star power to the film, there is a bevy of notable small appearances by those that would later appear in Brazil, including Katherine Helmond, Peter Vaughan, and Jack Purvis.

Kevin (Craig Warnock) is a young British boy living in a mundane suburban home with his neglectful parents, who spend most of their free time watching game shows and obsessing over home appliances. One night when Kevin is asleep, he is awakened by the sounds of his wardrobe, when out bursts six dwarves running from the disembodied headed Supreme Being, who chases Kevin and the dwarves into the blackness of space.

It turns out the dwarves work for the Supreme Being as tree-makers, but decided to steal the map of space and time in order to travel throughout history and steal treasures. Meanwhile, the group is being watched by the comically mischievous Evil (David Warner) and his disposable minions, who seek the map in order to take control of the universe.

While the story is one of the more basic and undeveloped stories by Gilliam, it’s the way he tells the tale on screen that is captivating. The special effects are all handmade and impressive, and the dreamlike visuals really work well with the fantastical material. The best moments are when the group meets with famous figures in history, such as the dim-witted Robin Hood (John Cleese), perpetually neurotic Napoleon (Ian Holm), and the commanding Agamemnon (Sean Connery). Scenes featuring the hopelessly aloof Vincent (Michael Palin) and Pansy (Shelley Duvall) are particularly hilarious. What does not work in the film are the pacing and the often ambivalent tone, as the film positions itself as made for both kids and adults, yet is sometimes aimless.

There has been periodic debate over the ending, which some construe as too grim and disturbing for a children’s film. Gilliam claims in an interview included on the disc that generally children who watch the film tend to enjoy it along with the ending, which I’m inclined to agree with. Considering the film’s fairy tale nature and the fact that the subject of neglectful parents is deliberately tackled, Kevin’s fate is more happy than grim. It must be said that Warner gives an amazing comedic performance as the bitter and sardonic yet extremely powerful overlord named Evil, and the scenes featuring him bickering with his minions are a joy to watch.

Time Bandits comes to Blu-ray for the first time as part of Image Entertainment’s re-issuing of classic HandMade Films features. The high-definition transfer is solid for the most part, but in some scenes suffers from poor restoration resulting in grainy images. In terms of features, sadly this release isn’t quite up to par with the Criterion DVD which had a commentary and informative booklet. What the disc does have is the original trailer and a decent 18-minute interview with Gilliam where he explains his inspiration for the film, as well as various aspects of the production.

RATING 7 / 10