Time Bandits (Terry Gilliam, 1981) – Possible genius and confirmed madman Terry Gilliam is one of the most fascinating directors of his generation. Yet, he’s also a guy far too silly to be taken particularly seriously and way too twisted to be commercial. He’s a perennial cult filmmaker, which is probably appropriate given his time spent with Monty Python. He also seemed to emerge behind the camera fully formed and ready to fuel his own cult. Following his time with Python and his unfairly forgotten debut Jabberwocky, Gilliam broke out as a filmmaker with the absolutely brilliant Time Bandits. Wittily (and accurately) described by Gilliam as “entertaining enough for adults and intelligent enough for children,” the film is one of those projects like Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are that smuggles a very adult vision of childhood into a film that appears to be for children. Indeed it is a wild and imaginative ride with a kid at the center, but it’s also a darkly comic exploration of the power of imagination for viewers who aren’t ankle high. It’s a pretty brilliant piece of work, yet one that seems to slide further into obscurity with each passing year. Thankfully, Criterion has come along to put a stop to that. It’s what they do.
The film follows a young boy named Kevin (Craig Warnock), an imaginative British lad whose parents are too lost in game shows and TV dinners to notice him. One night a knight on horseback inexplicably bursts through his dresser without warning. The next night, a collection of little people emerge from the same dresser. They’ve got a map to cross time and dimensions that they’ve stolen off of the great creator and they plan to do a little interstellar robbery. With little else going on, Kevin agrees to follow them on adventure. At first it’s an episodic trip through history visiting Napoleon, Robin Hood, Agamemnon, and others. Then the personification of evil (David Warner) takes notice and the gang ends up in fantasyland with giants and space ships and tanks and a battle between good and evil that can eventually only be stopped by god (Ralph Richardson). So yep, it’s a weird one to say the least.
What’s wonderful about Time Bandits is that it’s very much a children’s movie in every way, yet it somehow doesn’t feel like one. There’s nothing maudlin or sentimental about the movie. It’s witty, dark, strange, and intelligent, just in a way that kids love. Though Gilliam’s command of his visual style is on full display here, his growth as a writer was still a work in process. Scripted with fellow Python Michael Palin, the film is episodic and feels like something halfway between sketch and narrative. That would be a problem were it not for the fact that Gilliam’s sense of pacing and Palin’s sense of character weren’t so on point.
As the movie rambles through it’s first hour and the likes of John Cleese, Sean Connery, Shelly Duvall and Ian Holm steal scenes as caricatures of historical figures, it’s simply so pleasurable from moment to moment that the lack of clear structure is never a problem. Then just as tedium might set in, Gilliam ramps up Warner’s villainous presence and slides into a parable about the power of imagination. It’s quite a potent film in addition to being a joyous one. The movie feels like a genuine child’s fantasy from the mind of a mad genius of man who never forgot that experience when he grew up. Gilliam never forces anything approaching a moral down his audience’s throat and yet the movie feels substantial through visual invention and potent themes that are there only for those who dare to look. For younger audiences unconcerned with subtext, it’s just pure joy. Come to think of it, that’s often true for theoretical grown ups as well.
Time Bandits has been released on Blu-Ray before, but the Image Entertainment disc was a bit of an embarrassment, clearly sourced from a HD-TV master rather than a film print. Thankfully, Criterion doesn’t do half measures. The company’s full restoration of Time Bandits is simply astounding. Given Gilliam’s preference for wide angle lenses and packing his frames with as much information and wacko imagery as possible, his movies were made for Blu-ray. The depth and clarity of the image is absolutely astounding, revealing details never visible before and enhancing the movie’s magical atmosphere immeasurably. Quite frankly, seeing the movie on this disc is almost like seeing it for the first time. Beyond that, Criterion has served up nice little collection of special features. Best of all is an old audio commentary from the Criterion laserdisc, which at the time the company essentially treated like an audio documentary. The track includes Gilliam, Palin, Cleese, Warner, and a grownup Warnock in a lively chat filled with more anecdotes, jokes, candid honesty, and observations that most full DVD docs. Old or not, it’s an amazing commentary.
Beyond that, Criterion commissioned a new 25-minute documentary with the production and costume designers (who have some incredible stories to tell about their imaginative live-action cartoon designs), a wonderful 80-minute interview with Gilliam about his entire career from a Finnish film festival in the late 90s (yes, really), an amusingly awkward Tom Snyder interview with Shelly Duvall (in case you ever wondered, Duvall considers working with kids “fun.” That’s possibly the biggest revelation of the entire interview), some behind the scenes stills, and the hilariously Pythonesque theatrical trailer. It’s a wonderful package for what is arguably Terry Gilliam’s first genuine masterpiece. I’d consider lamenting that “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore,” but the truth is that they never made em’ like this in the first place. Gilliam is a true original and it’s a shame that he never lent his overactive imagination to a children’s movie again. The troubled genre could certainly use him.