In making Time Bandits, co-writer/director Terry Gilliam said that he wanted to make a film that was intelligent enough for children and exciting enough for adults, a clever reversal of standard Hollywood intent that is precisely what makes it one of the greatest of children's fantasy movies. Gilliam keeps his camera low and shoots everything from the point of view of a child, which lends visual and emotional substance to the film's child-centric (but never childish) celebration of the outlandish, the exaggerated, the scary, and the silly. It is no small surprise that Gilliam recruited several of his Monty Python colleagues to contribute to the film, including Michael Palin (who co-wrote the script with Gilliam and plays the recurring role of a doomed lovestruck goof) and John Cleese, who shows up for a brief cameo as a wonderfully clueless and overly positive Robin Hood.
The brilliance of Time Bandits and the reason it continues to speak so eloquently to open-minded viewers of any age is its radical sense of juxtaposition and boundary blurring (I can speak from direct experience, having watched it dozens of times on cable as a 10-year-old in the early 1980s and finding all new appreciation for it in my adult years without losing any of the sense of wonderment I enjoyed decades ago). At all times the film is engaged in a giddy game of purposeful misplacement, with an oddball assortment of physically, but never emotionally, diminutive characters literally jumping through the ages via a series of time portals that have been charted on a map designed by no less than the Supreme Being himself. The trick is that Gilliam and Palin aren't really interested in historical veracity (another reasons kids love it-they aren't being surreptitiously educated), but rather how they can derive humor and adventure from well-known historical figures, whether they be real (Ian Holm's Napoleon), mythical (Sean Connery's King Agamemnon), or somewhere in-between (Cleese's Robin Hood). The fact that the film makes no distinction between myth and reality is indicative of its fundamental playfulness, and when it finally steps into the realm of clear-cut fantasy once the characters enter the mythical "Time of Legends," it all feels of a piece. Horrifying ogres suffer with back problems and have to be tended to by their loving wives, ships turn out to be little more than the head accoutrement for a giant, and God himself is embodied by the legendary Ralph Richardson as a fussy, absent-minded old man.
At the film's heart is one hero, six antiheroes, and a villain. The hero is, of course, the child, an 11-year-old suburban boy named Kevin (Craig Warnock) who has a bright imagination, a love of history and fantasy, and two dull, materialistic parents (David Daker and Sheila Fearn) who are more interested in their kitchen appliances and plastic-covered furniture than their son. Kevin is essentially alone in his own family, which is why it is so easy for him to take up with the film's six antiheroes, a gaggle of dwarfs who were once employed by the Supreme Being to make shrubs and trees but now fancy themselves "international criminals" after having stolen the time map with the intent of using it to rob history's richest figures. Led by the supremely confident Randall (Davis Rappaport), each of the dwarfs has a unique personality that is usually in conflict with the others: Wally (Jack Purvis) is tough-talking and constantly challenging Randall's self-appointed authority; Fidgit (Kenny Baker) is sweet-natured and gentle; Strutter (Malcolm Dixon) is an older professorial type; Vermin (Tiny Ross) is distinguished by his propensity for eating anything; and Og (Mike Edmonds) is, as his name suggests, virtually monosyllabic. Importantly, while the dwarfs are all immensely likable, they are never in any way cuddly or even particularly nice; rather, they are consistently self-serving and self-aggrandizing, with their chief virtue being their honesty about it (unlike Kevin's parents, who just sink into a selfish stupor in front of the television every night).
With the map in hand, anything is possible, which gives Gilliam free license. The first half of the film is really a series of setpieces, with Kevin and the dwarfs robbing the height-obsessed Napoleon before losing all their riches to Robin Hood and his grimy less-than-merry men, after which they are temporarily separated when Kevin goes through the wrong portal and becomes the adopted son of King Agamemnon and then reunited aboard the Titanic just in time for its fatal voyage ("How was I to know we were gonna run right into an iceberg? It didn't say Get off before the iceberg' on the ticket!" Randall yells while they all cling to a plank in the middle of the frigid Atlantic). The second half of the story finds them in the Time of Legends seeking the supposed "Most Fabulous Object in the World," which is really just a ruse by Evil himself (David Warner) to ensnare them and steal the map so that he can remake the world in his own self-image, which means a lot of technology and a lack of nipples on men.
Like the best of Monty Python's films and television episodes, Time Bandits is a wildly fluctuating mixture of basic absurdity and sharp-edged social satire. Gilliam's obsession with the potentially overwhelming and dehumanizing nature of technology and materialism (which is particularly pronounced in Brazil, the film he was trying to get off the ground when he cooked up the idea for Time Bandits) is woven throughout the adventure in clever and sometimes bizarre ways, such as the manner in which he evokes the plastic coverings of Kevin's parents' furniture in the plastic Evil's minions wear over their clothes. Similarly, Evil's Fortress of Ultimate Darkness is absurdly huge, and the fact that it has no real point is the point: It is a monument to both Evil's runaway ego and his love of construction for its own sake--a grandiose, gothic corollary to shiny, but unnecessary kitchen appliances.
The film's production design is a constant marvel of both fine detail and wild imagination, especially given the fact that it was independently produced for around $5 million. The special effects are all decidedly old school in their analogue dependence on miniatures, forced perspective, and camera overcranking, which is precisely how Gilliam likes it. The effects, which reach back into the history of fantasy cinema and are generally quite convincing, are in line of the film's overall disdain for modernity and all its shallow promises. It's the fantasy and the fun that matter, and while Gilliam's coating of much of the film in dirt and grime would seem to be an indicator of weightier matters at hand, it is really just one more way of playing to the childhood love of the dirty and the messy.
Copyright 2014 James Kendrick
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All images copyright The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (4)
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