The Film: 5/5
Time Bandits was the first movie that demonstrated what storytelling marvels Terry Gilliam was truly capable when removed from Monty Python’s Flying Circus (his first solo directorial project was 1977’s Jabberwocky, which is okay but I could take it or leave it). He had first desired to make the film that would become his magnum opus - and the source of his greatest battle with mainstream Hollywood - eventually titled Brazil, but with the script having yet to coalesce and the funding nowhere close to being place Gilliam decided instead to make a feature designed to appeal to children, but without insulting their intelligence. Time Bandits was one of the first elaborate film fantasies of the 1980’s and with its wealth of humor, brains, and heart it has managed a feat many of its brethren in the genre were incapable of achieving: it has endured, and it has done so while aging remarkably well. Gilliam’s love for larger-than-life characters, ingenious visuals, and dry British wit comes alive in every scene of his fractured fairy tale, but there are also more mature themes at play here than you would typically find in a kids’ fantasy film.
Young Kevin (Craig Warnock) has a thirst for knowledge and yearns for a great adventure that will take him away from his ignorant, materialistic mother (Sheila Fearn) and father (David Daker). One night while he’s trying to sleep adventure comes crashing through the walls of his bedroom - literally - in the form of an armored knight on horseback that rides out of the boy’s closet and disappears through a wall. The next night the closet brings forth a gang of dwarves lead by Randall (David Rappaport) and including Wally (Jack Purvis), Fidgit (Kenny Baker), Strutter (Malcolm Dixon), Og (Mike Edmonds), and Vermin (Tiny Ross). They have stolen a map of time and space that once belonged to their boss, the Supreme Being (played in human form by Ralph Richardson), and are using the holes in the map they were tasked to fix (until they were demoted for creating the Pink Bunkadoo, a 600-foot high red tree that smelled terrible) to travel through time and myth and steal riches for themselves.
When the Supreme Being comes looking for the map the dwarves reluctantly take Kevin on a grand quest where they encounter the Greek king Agamemnon (Sean Connery), the famous thief and champion of the downtrodden Robin Hood (John Cleese), and a very insecure Napoleon (Ian Holm). Out of nowhere Og suggests they go looking for “the Most Fabulous Object in the World”, but in reality his mind is being controlled by the universe’s most evil character, the Evil Genius (David Warner), who dwells in a dark fortress in the Time of Legends. Evil desires the map so he can carry out his long-held desire to remake the entire universe according to his philosophies regarding technology and nature, and he intended to lure Kevin and his new friends into a trap that will be the end of them all unless they can set their own selfish needs aside and save the whole of creation from a eternity of darkness.
The 1980’s were a miraculous decade for genre cinema. Sure it gave us so many cheesy horror and sci-fi flicks with dated fashions and music and whose general lameness has been concealed over time by a healthy layering of misplace nostalgia, but it was one of the late golden eras for fantasy films that did not require an R rating to be ballsy and original. If you had never before viewed Time Bandits you might look at its synopsis and think it to be pretty goofy-sounding. Dwarves and a little kid leapfrogging through history and encountering the most evil villain in existence? This could have been a low-budget kids’ movie produced for the direct-to-video market by Charles Band. Bandits is a perfect demonstration of how a typical fantasy plot can be elevated into a truly inspiring and unforgettable motion picture experience simply by virtue of not insulting the audience’s intelligence. Working from a marvelously ingenious script he co-authored with fellow Python alum Michael Palin (who also makes a few brief appearances in the film), Gilliam crafts Time Bandits into one of the high water marks of his filmmaking career. Every frame of film and the visual and verbal wonderments they contain are nearly perfect.
Craig Warnock has to be one of the best child actors to ever have graced the silver screen. He really brings across in his performance as Kevin what it could be like for an impressionable kid who hardly gets any respect at home such as he to be suddenly swept along on an adventure for the ages. He is both the hero and the audience surrogate; his exploits soon become ours and we have no difficulty feeling the emotions that he does. Warnock never becomes annoying even though Randall and the other members of his merry band of pint-sized miscreants might often view him in that manner. There have been many fantasies in print and on the screen about young daydreamers finding their imaginations becoming flesh and blood realities, but Warnock is among the precious few actors who makes the transition feel authentic. Above all else he remains himself, a good kid who does not just long for an escape from the doldrums of his everyday life but also for parental figures who will love and appreciate him.
Names like Kenny Baker, Mike Edmonds, and Jack Purvis may seem familiar to you if you ever spent time scanning the end credits of some sci-fi or horror film that featured some manner of diminutive freak or creature brought to life by visual effects make-up. Time Bandits was rare for its time as it gave these journeyman actors with talents and personalities greater than their height a golden opportunity to shine outside of the alien and robot costumes, and each and every one of them are pretty good. The gang is lead by the late David Rappaport, a gifted performer who cut his own life short at the age of 38 before being able to realize his wealth of promise. He was determined to make it as an actor in spite of his size and often refused to be pigeonholed in the sort of demeaning bit parts that many of his peers were forced to take. Rappaport brings out the lovable rogue in Randall and uses every ounce of his charm and humor to make the character warm and sympathetic even if his first instinct is usually to profit from whatever dilemma in which he and the others find themselves ensnared.
Palin and Shelley Duvall (the latter making an acting about face from her previous role in The Shining) supply some goofy laughs as a pair of eternally screwed-over lovers. David Warner delivers a delicious performance as Evil, a towering treat of mirth and menace with some of the film’s most quotable dialogue. Ian Holm is hilarious as a hopelessly apprehensive but easily amused Napoleon, while Sean Connery is every bit the noble king we would expect from Agamemnon and John Cleese pops in as a very Cleese-esque Robin Hood. Holm and Purvis are not the only future co-stars of Gilliam’s Brazil making appearances here; both Peter Vaughan and Katherine Helmond make welcome appearances as a cranky ogre and his supportive wife, and by supportive I mean Lady Macbeth supportive. Jim Broadbent is perfectly smug as a TV game show host. Then we have the immortal Ralph Richardson, ideally cast as the Supreme Being. He underplays the part with stone-faced deadpan humor and a weary resignation that makes sense when you consider that he is basically playing a very British God.
The cinematography by Peter Bizou (Pink Floyd The Wall, The Truman Show) achieves the visually pleasurable guise of aged storybook illustrations, with the terrific razor-sharp editing provided by Julian Doyle (Monty Python’s Life of Brian). Production designer Milly Burns, who had served as Gilliam’s art director on Jabberwocky, and art director Norman Garwood (The Princess Bride) used pre-existing locations and lush but inexpensive sets to make Time Bandits appear to be a far more pricier production than it actually was. James Acheson’s (Spider-Man, Man of Steel) costumes feature intricate details and accomplish an façade of authenticity. Doyle, Garwood, and Acheson would later re-team with Gilliam on Brazil four years later, which is fitting as the 1985 Orwellian sci-fi satire was the second chapter in the director’s “Trilogy of Imagination” that would be completed with 1989’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
There has been some considerable hype surrounding Arrow Video’s HD restoration of Time Bandits. It was even screened theatrically overseas for a limited time, and the transfer met the approval of director Gilliam himself to boot. Scanned in 2K resolution from the original camera negative with thousands of instances of dirt, scratches, and debris removed in a meticulous frame-by-frame undertaking, what Arrow has accomplished here is nothing short of magical (very befitting of this film, I must say). While the quality of this transfer - presented in the original 1.85:1 widescreen theatrical aspect ratio - isn’t absolutely perfect, it does represent the best Bandits has looked in more than three decades. That alone is an achievement for the books. The colors have been brightened to their initial vibrancy and splendor, bringing long-lost authenticity back to the lived-in look of the production design. Every leaf on the trees in Sherwood Forest is alive with beautiful greens and browns. Flesh tones have been balanced out and each frame has greatly improved details without suffering from a loss of fine picture grain that would have compromised the integrity of the wondrous cinematography.
Arrow has provided Time Bandits with a new English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track alongside the original uncompressed 2.0 stereo PCM track. To quote the liner notes included with this Blu-ray, the soundtrack “was transferred from the original magnetic tracks and underwent audio restoration to repair bumps, clicks, and other instances of audible damage”. If you want to get the full listening experience when watching this movie your best bet is to go with the 5.1 track, but as with most Arrow releases the 2.0 works just as effectively if you are viewing it on a standard television without a home theater set-up. Every element of the sound mix comes through the speakers with crystalline clarity and not a single trace of distortion. Volume levels are balanced on the dialogue, Mike Moran’s (Death Wish 3) music score, ambient sounds, and Foley effects with no overlap present. Optional English subtitles for the deaf and/or hard of hearing have also been included.
Time Bandits has been released on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray countless times over the years, and rarely have the extra features been ported over from one iteration to another. The first DVD release from the Criterion Collection featured an informative and wistful audio commentary with Gilliam, Palin, and actors Warnock, Warner, and Cleese, but subsequent releases have ditched that track for an interchangeable selection of documentaries and interviews. Arrow’s Blu-ray release once again leaves the Criterion commentary behind and produced over ninety minutes’ worth of fresh interviews exclusive to this edition. If you own any of the previous editions for the supplements it would be wise for you to hang on to them.
Naturally we first get an interview with Gilliam, “Chasing Time Bandits” (20 minutes). He begins the talk by mentioning that the only reason he did Time Bandits was because he had wanted to make Brazil at the time but it didn’t happen, so he decided to make a children’s movie instead (or at least his idea of a children’s movie). Gilliam discusses working with Palin on the screenplay, the casting of Craig Warnock (an amusing story behind that), and making the movie on a low budget. The director has precious few memories of the actual shoot but he does mention the minor battle he gotten into with his producers Denis O’Brien and George Harrison over the final scene and how test screenings at an American theater proved inadvertently to be his salvation. They would later become his bane on Brazil. Watching this interview made me hunger for a new commentary with Gilliam; the man could always talk up a storm about his inspirations and the art of filmmaking.
Co-writer and actor Michael Palin is the focus of “Writing the Film That Dares Not Speak Its Name” (16 minutes). Like Gilliam he talks about the problems with the ending as well as finding the right tone for the soundtrack (Harrison wanted a “Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho“ kind of musical theme for the dwarf characters), but he also goes over his collaboration with the director that amounted to fleshing out the characters and dialogue duties, which he strived to keep in the spirit of Monty Python.
Optical effects artist Kent Houston is next up for “The Effects of Time Bandits” (15 minutes), in which he discusses co-founding the Peerless Camera Company with Gilliam to create the film’s visual wizardry and the creation of various memorable effects set pieces. “Playing Evil” (9 minutes) brings in David Warner for a recollection of his time playing the villain of Time Bandits, from the process of finding the right costume for Evil Genius to working with Gilliam and some fond memories of the production. He closes the interview out by telling a funny story about a statue given to him as a gift by George Harrison. Costume designer James Acheson is the subject of “The Costumes of Time Bandits” (13 minutes) and he starts off by displaying sketches for several of his original concepts for the characters. Acheson also speaks frankly about the fear and excitement he felt that also compelled him to leave the production and the doctor who just might have saved his career and the task of designing the costumes for the various time periods depicted in the story. “The Look of Time Bandits” (11 minutes) finds production designer Milly Burns discussing the procedure of creating sets on a limited budget and filming in Morocco, as well as briefing touching upon concepts for landscapes conceived for the movie but never filmed (including a future world and a “forest of hands”). Burns also narrates the featurette “From Script to Screen” (8 minutes), a full-motion still gallery breaking down the labors of transforming Morocco into the ancient Greek kingdom ruled by Agamemnon, replete with sketches, location scout photos, reference materials, storyboards, and pages from the original script when it was still titled The Film That Dares Not Speak Its Name.
The disc-based extras close out with the original theatrical trailer (3 minutes), which features the trailer voiceover guy getting into an argument with Michael Palin while clips from the movie play, and a restoration demonstration (3 minutes) that provides us with a brief look the steps taken to return Time Bandits to its former glory. Arrow has also provided this Blu-ray with reversible cover art and a collector’s booklet containing a new essay about the film by critic James Oliver and a gallery of promotional materials.
A flight of fantasy that can have no equal, Time Bandits remains to this day one of Terry Gilliam’s most fully-realized feature films. It’s thrilling, funny, splendidly performed, and brimming with ideas and imagination. Arrow Video’s eagerly-awaited 2K restoration and subsequent Blu-ray release were both well worth the wait. One of the best Blus made available anywhere in the world in 2013, this disc belongs in the collection of every fan of timeless genre cinema.