What To Watch: Spinning Imagination in ‘Time Bandits’ (1981)
The creative genius behind this classic fairy tale still has great impact.
Time Bandits is a 1981 comedy adventure about a boy swept up into an epic time-traveling tale of wonder when a group of dwarves suddenly burst into his bedroom.
It was the giant. That is the answer to what set off a long span of creativity within myself when I was young, the beast’s slow, looming, arrival and its imposing presence that utterly shifted the direction of my imagination. That and the Ogre. And the dangling cages. And, well, all of it, truly. Terry Gilliam’s endlessly fascinating, metaphorical fantasy adventure remains one of the most affecting movie experiences of what can best be described as my film addiction, and one that still keeps secrets waiting to be revealed.
THE STORY: It centers on a boy named Kevin (Craig Warnock in his only film appearance) who lives in the heart of England, awash in commercialism and vapid material wants. His parents, while not abusive, are neglectful as such, spending their time sitting on plastic-covered furniture watching banal TV programs that advertise futuristic kitchens and games shows that put people in absurd predicaments (with host Jim Broadbent). They are complacent members in the modern machine.
An avid reader of history, Kevin sits well away from the influence of the screen and goes to bed one night only to find a knight on a white horse bursting from his wardrobe, riding off into the woods that have suddenly appeared in his bedroom. The next night, it gets even more peculiar when a group of dwarves arrive carrying a large map, running from The Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson). The map is no ordinary map though, as it is reveals time portals throughout the universe and the dwarves, who work for, and have recently been demoted by the Being, have stolen it to travel about time and get rich. The problem is, their actions have drawn the attention of Evil (David Warner), who sets his minions out to steal the map for himself and reset history in his own name.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Mixing basic creationist themes with science-fiction fantasy, Time Bandits is a clever balance between of children’s story-telling with some decidedly adult inclinations. Through a series of historical and legend-inspired vignettes, we travel about time with the gang, taking part in well-known scenes of the past a full thirteen years before Forrest Gump did. Written by Gilliam and Michael Palin, who also appears with other Monty Python member John Cleese (a quick note is to mention how each member of the Monty Python troupe is said to be represented by one of the dwarves, a bit of trivia that fans of the comedy team will surely find as an extra bit of fun in watching the movie), the story is ostensibly about a boy and his dreams but touches on a number of philosophical directions, leading to an ending that is both ambiguous but with purpose. A kid’s movie by design, it appeals to them because of its vision but grows with them as a tale rich with unanswered questions that beg for one to fill in the gaps.
From the opening moments in Kevin’s room, filled with clues as to his coming adventures, we are meant to consider the parallels between dreaming and reality, yet Gilliam and Palin aren’t just content with drawing a single line in which to choose a side. As the stories within the film unwind, we see growth in the boy as well as sharp jabs at the world he lives in, with nearly every character and situation commentary on his life at home.
In Gilliam’s uniquely blended vision of real and imagination, we witness scenes that are layered in frights and laughs, such as the introduction of Evil, played with menacing fun by Warner. As a child, Evil’s quick undoing of his minions, who constantly question his validity, are objectively gruesome and yet there is great humor to it as well, something that Gilliam masters throughout. The gritty, earthy feel to it all makes every frame feel authentic even as it spirals into the fantastical.
For adults, the movie is a criticism of consumerism, with the gang in the film eventually deceived by Evil to pursue “The Most Fabulous Object in the World.” This leads the narrow-sighted thieves along a path of hurdles that could and should stop them, but in their thirst for something no one else has, manage to trek ever on, eventually finding themselves suspended in cages over oblivion, another terrific visual metaphor. What happens next, I’ll leave for you to discover.
A GREAT MOMENT: With that said, there is a challenging ending, one that for children will seem funny and clever and perfectly free of questions, but for everyone else, opens a box of mystery that, for people like me, inspire great conversations about possibilities. Who is that firefighter? What really happens to Kevin’s parents? What will become of Kevin? And many more.
And so it brings me back to the giant. At one point in the film, the dwarves and Kevin find themselves atop the bald head of a giant who has emerged from the ocean, themselves on a wooden sailing ship. Notice how Gilliam frames the towering figure (played by Ian Muir), which lends him great majesty while generating an amazing sense of height and presence. Even now, it is a stirring sequence that, in an age of incredible CGI, stands far above it.
THE TALLY: This is the greatest achievement of Time Bandits, a film that, much like its premise might allow, has become timeless. A family film as well as one rife with symbolism and interpretation, it remains a true cinema spectacle. It’s what to watch.