Time Bandits came at a curious time in the career of Terry Gilliam. It could be considered a crossroads. He had cut his teeth animating for Monty Python, which eventually led to him co-directing Monty Python and the Holy Grail with Terry Jones. From there he moved towards imaginative fantasy worlds like Jabberwocky, where he was still finding his craft. Time Bandits was yet another step forward into exploring a fantastical world, while still clinging to his Python roots and trying to achieve a mass appeal. What resulted was a blending of the Python comedy, the Gilliam fantasy, and another stepping stone towards the career of a unique auteur.
Gilliam uses a child’s perspective to establish the fantasy, contrasted with the crass commercialism of the adults – Kevin’s parents – and a yearning toward the adventures of yesteryear. While he is dreaming of historical and fantasy worlds, his parents are dreaming of an appliance that prepares their food just a little quicker. Meanwhile, they sit on furniture that still has the plastic covering seemingly to keep it from becoming worn and old.
The mise-en-scene of Kevin’s bedroom is a template for the entire remainder of the film. The pictures represent locations where Kevin and his Time Bandits will later travel, while the toys will similarly reappear as objects in later scenes. This is a clever and creative way of planting a gun in the first act to have it reappear in the third. Gilliam places everything in the first act, which begs the question as to whether the events take place in reality or whether they are in the dreams of a child’s mind.
The fact that Kevin’s travel companions are dwarves help anchor the camera to a child’s perspective, so that virtually everything in the movie is shot from below. All of the adults (save for Napoleon) tower over the camera. This also suggests the mystery between this being a child’s imaginary world or whether the bandits and their perspective are real.
John Cleese and Michael Palin are the link with Gilliam’s Monty Python roots. While they are funny in Time Bandits and steal every scene they are in, they restrain Gilliam’s artistry and imagination. It is no coincidence that his best work would come when he was ultimately divorced from the Python aesthetic. We laugh when Cleese steals the rich bounty from the bandits only to give it away to the poor, or when he turns a blind eye to those poor being punched for no apparent reason. We also laugh when Michael Palin tries to hide an ailment from his beloved Shelley Duvall, whether it is in the forest or on the Titanic.
When the Python actors are not on the screen, the film becomes less of a comedy and more of a deeper examination of the spirituality of this world. In this sense, Time Bandits is two different movies. It is in part a Pythonesque comedy and in part an artistic examination of commercialism, the concept of good versus evil, and at it’s core, a coming of age story. Given that it is so many things and is partially effective at each, I feel that it falls short of its potential, yet remains wholly entertaining.
Film Rating: 6.5/10
Commentary: – Gilliam discusses his experiences with the film in a decent commentary. I did not realize that this began as a children’s film while he was struggling to make Brazil. I can see that ambition in Time Bandits, and for that reason I’m glad he used a mainstream canvas to stretch his creative legs, and that experience probably helped Brazil become a great film. It is interesting that he used Python actors and dwarf actors from Star Wars, yet was inspired by Visconti in terms of production value. This is readily apparent by the terrific historical set pieces, which stand on their own for any genre of film.
There are other participants in the commentary. Child actor Craig Warnock played Kevin and shares some of his fond memories of the experience, since he was young during the filming, he does not have the sharpest memory of how everything came together. He share some interesting stories, such as how he got the part, which of course would be difficult to forget.
Also participating in the commentary are Michael Palin, John Cleese, and David Warner. Palin helped write the movie. He was initially going to only write the dialogue, but he ended up contributing to the plot as well. And he casted and wrote his own part. It was a short shoot for John Cleese and he did not know entirely what the movie was about, but he enjoyed his scene. Warner enjoyed playing the evil genius, which was a sort of comic villain that he had not played before.
“Creating the Worlds of Time Bandits” – This piece is about the set and costume design. Like many good Criterion features, it points out things that are easy to miss when first viewing the film. One thing I missed was that the bandit characters had relics from history as part of their costumes. Talks about different locations – Ancient Greece was Southern Morocco. The Napoleon scenes were filmed in Wales. There were other scenes shot in Kent, and a lot on the studio. The Titanic was shot in a studio by just creating a deck, but it worked well. The sinking was from A Night to Remember.
Terry Gilliam and Peter von Baugh – This is a conversation between the director and film scholar from 1998. Gilliam talks about films he loves as a kid, like epic films (Ben Hur), which can be seen in his personal and Monty Python works. Talks about using movies as escapes, which makes sense since his major works – even the most artistic — really are about escaping into a sort of fantasy world. He did not know art cinema as a child, but adored people like Jerry Lewis. Of course he would eventually discover art films. At one point in the interview he references La Jetee, which of course he would remake into 12 Monkeys.
Shelley Duvall – Interview with Tom Snyder in 1981 on his Tomorrow show. He introduces her as a big star, which she really was at the time, but her film career derailed afterward and she worked more on children’s projects (Fairy Tale Theater). She talks about how smart Monty Python guys are, which is true as they are all Oxford scholars, and many of their post Python works have been academic. This was a short, promotional segment where they showed a clip.
Criterion Rating: 7.5/10