The satire that would pervade Terry Gilliam’s subsequent Brazil is largely confined to the first few minutes of 1981’s Time Bandits. The film opens in a modern, English household where a boy, Kevin (Craig Warnock), pores over a book on ancient Greek history while his parents (David Daker and Sheila Fearn) both watch and read advertisements, discussing the relative merits of their various gadgets and appliances compared to those of their neighbors. The living room is lit with harsh artificial light and decorated like a showroom, a place designed to boast to others, not to be lived in. Only Kevin’s room, naturally lit via a window and adorned with self-taken photographs and childlike drawings, betrays any humanity.
Soon, the cozy retreat of Kevin’s room is invaded, though not by his parents, but by a medieval knight on horseback, and then a sextet of time-traveling dwarves who recruit the boy into their misadventures of hopping around time to rob famous historical and mythic figures. Like any good children’s adventure story, the setup is brief, not particularly sensible, and largely irrelevant to the trek to come. Here, it takes an avid reader and historically minded child and lets him visit the times he fantasizes about, even if it’s just to nick some spoons from Napoleon.
Warnock gives a winsome performance, innocent without being obnoxiously precious, while the bandits are largely restricted in consistent expression by their ringleader, Randall (David Rappaport), who speaks with a smug knowingness that far outstrips his actual knowledge. But the most engaging performances belong to the heavy-hitting talent culled to portray the larger-than-life characters who the bandits meet. John Cleese plays Robin Hood like a dimwit politician, emptily shaking hands and marveling “Jolly good!” before suddenly stripping his lulled new acquaintances of their possessions. Shelley Duvall and Michael Palin play a repressed English couple who, in one of the film’s sliest jokes, suggest that such a stereotype can exist across the ages. Sean Connery turns in a surprisingly poignant turn as Agamemnon, who takes in Kevin with a good-natured paternalism that intoxicates the boy, while Ian Holm steals the film as an intimidating yet insecure Napoleon, a man who’s conquered a continent, but can only think about his height. Holm’s gleeful appreciation of a Punch and Judy show, or his drunken listing of great world leaders who were also short, are the film’s comic highlights.
Good as these cameos are, however, the lasting draw of the film is its exceptional aesthetic. Gilliam keeps his camera low in a child’s perspective, and wide-angle lenses only exacerbate the magnified sense of scale that everything has. Minutely detailed miniature work makes epic set pieces of an ogre’s ship, or the labyrinthine chasm that’s the fortress of Evil (David Warner). That the film only cost $5 million is scarcely comprehensible given how massive it looks, but Gilliam doesn’t simply work big for the sake of it. The tricks of perspective first illustrate, then corrupt, the wonder that young adventure stories are meant to impart, initially enrapturing Kevin with new realms to explore before swallowing him whole to confront the boy with his basic powerlessness.
It’s here, then, that Gilliam stakes one of the key principles of his filmography, the notion that fairy tales must regain the sense of danger that’s been erased from them by modern entertainment makers who treat their audiences, regardless of age or maturity, with kid gloves. Even the coda viciously refuses to play by convention, denying the story a resolution back in the normal present and abandoning Kevin to his own devices. That conclusion, which ends with the film’s god figure (Ralph Richardson), hammers home an especially dark moral: This is a movie with an antagonist literally named Evil, but its true villain may be the deity who willfully, inquisitively created that figure in the first place.
Time Bandits has been reissued on home video so many times now that quality varies wildly, but the 2K restoration on Criterion’s disc should place ahead of all competition, even preexisting international Blu-rays. Flesh tones are stable throughout, while crush is undetectable and colors remain fully saturated. A few shots of the Napoleonic battleground have image inconsistencies, but they look to be in-camera fluctuations of natural light and movement and not transfer flaws. The lossless stereo is quieter than one might expect of so boisterous a movie, but a lack of any aural issues and consistent balancing of the various foley effects, dialogue, and music makes for a clear track.
A 2001 commentary track flits between various cast and crew members in isolation, mostly centered on Gilliam, but also branching out to get thoughts from co-writer and actor Michael Palin, Craig Warnock, John Cleese, and David Warner. These sudden transitions between speakers add to the dryness of the commentary, but there’s still a great deal of information within, especially when Gilliam is talking. An archival interview between Shelley Duvall and Tom Snyder briefly touches upon the film, while a new video details the film’s art direction with input from production designer Milly Burns and costume designer James Acheson. There are also still photographs, a trailer, and a booklet containing a David Sterritt essay, but the best feature by far is the 80-minute conversation between Gilliam and recently departed Finnish director and film historian Peter von Bagh that was recorded at the 1998 Midnight Sun Film Festival, a far-ranging conversation that trawls through Gilliam’s personal and professional life to that point. It’s a captivating, relaxed conversation between mutual admirers, and all the more engaging for the lack of Gilliam’s usual irascibility.
Terry Gilliam’s grandiose, darkly comic children’s adventure has seen many home-video releases over the years, but Criterion’s Blu-ray finally gives the film the package it deserves.