January 19, 2012 by abbyo
Terry Gilliam is the reason I started loving movies, and “Time Bandits” is the movie that did it. I remember the first time I ever saw it. I was about seven or eight, sitting in my cousin’s basement, eating fast food burgers from Hot ‘n Now. I only saw the last half of the movie, but even though I didn’t really know what was going on, I knew I loved it, and I had to see it again. Which I did, countless times. It was a movie that wasn’t just funny and exciting, it was smart. It was a children’s movie that treated the kids watching it as clever, and as capable of picking up on subtle themes as they were capable of laughing at funny little men in weird hats.
“Time Bandits” is the story of a bright schoolboy named Kevin, who is stuck with a pair of gadget-obsessed parents who just don’t get him. One night, his bedroom is invaded by the titular gang of bandits, a bunch of creatively-dressed dwarves with a map of holes in space-time that they’re using to travel between historical periods to steal valuable loot. Turns out Kevin’s room is located right on one of these holes. He joins the bandits in their exploits, and tries to escape the clutches of both the Supreme Being and the Evil Genius, both of whom are after the map.
As a kid, I loved this movie because it played directly to my fantasies. As a bookworm who regularly devoured stuff like the Narnia and Redwall series, I felt like Kevin a lot of the time, like nobody else saw the world the way I did. I even liked that Kevin’s parents are completely oblivious to everything that’s happening throughout the film. It makes the magic of the movie appeal even more directly to children, as though they’re the only ones who can fully comprehend it, because they’re not yet jaded by reality.
It was a feeling I’d forgotten until I watched the film this week. As an adult, the effect had worn off through a combination of multiple viewings, and just a different approach to the way I watch movies. But something changed for me this time around, maybe because I was looking specifically for that spark that made me love the movie in the first place. Not only did I remember how I felt the first time I watched the film, but I started to really pay attention to “Time Bandits” in the context of the rest of Gilliam’s career. This was his third full-length film (and his second non-Python outing), and what really stands out in this movie are early hallmarks of the style and themes that would characterize Gilliam’s later films, while still maintaining a lot of the same elements that showed up during his days animating for Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Gilliam made “Time Bandits” while “Brazil,” the movie that would come to define his career, was stuck in development. He basically made it as a way to boost his profile and get funding for his dream project. As a result, a lot of the themes that appear in “Brazil” show up in simplified form in “Time Bandits.” The idea of technology as the tool of ultimate evil, of higher powers represented as bureaucracies, and mindless consumers as unwitting contributions to the problem all show up here, then get developed to the extreme in “Brazil.” The visuals, too—bombed-out cities, apocalyptic wastelands and the like, show up in practically every movie Gilliam’s ever done. In this way, “Time Bandits” is actually a great introduction to the director’s work, since it’s not only accessible, but provides a great primer for his other films.
But here’s something I’ve always found a little troubling about the movie, something that bothered me further still this time around: Gilliam’s representation of the Supreme Being. He’s played by Ralph Richardson as a kind of doddering old man who’s smarter than he looks, but isn’t all there. He also doesn’t hold humans in very high esteem—not even clever, resourceful little boys. The last shot of the film starts with Kevin, who’s just been abandoned in front of his house, his future completely uncertain, then zooms out to show him as a tiny speck on the map of the universe, which the Supreme Being then rolls up and takes out of the frame. It’s done as a clever end cap, but the message it conveys is a little depressing, especially for a family film: we’re all just cogs in a machine. Sometimes bad things happen, but it doesn’t really matter to God. He’s perfectly able to help us out, he just doesn’t care to. As a person of faith, I find that to be rather a defeatist attitude, and one that isn’t exactly consistent with the themes of Gilliam’s films post-“Brazil,” where creativity and the supernatural overcome the oppressive forces of reality.
But overall, “Time Bandits” is still a fun movie, one that’s got just enough balance of social commentary and whimsy to appeal to viewers of all ages. It still holds a very special place in my heart. It may not be the most straightforward or consistent of movies, but that’s really not important. It is, after all, a movie for children, and probably one of the best there is.
-Another inconsistency: Kevin finds photos in his pocket of his adventures—meaning they must have really happened—but if you look at his room, it’s obvious that all the scenes are built around the toys scattered on the floor, which doesn’t quite make sense. But again, children’s movie. Consistency isn’t the point.
-Somehow I managed to write a complete review of “Time Bandits” without mentioning the great cameo performances. John Cleese, Sean Connery, Michael Palin and Shelley Duvall are all great, but Ian Holm’s Napoleon is the standout, perhaps the only portrayal of a Napoleon with a Napoleon complex.
Link: For a much less biased (but still good!) review of this movie, check out Matthew Dessem’s post on Criterion Contraption. While you’re there, feel free to waste a few hours reading his articles, as they are all pretty great.