Time Bandits

14 05 2010

Terry Gilliam’s career has come a long way since he animated the foot of Bronzino’s Cupid in Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-74). After the frustrations involved in bringing Brazil (1985) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989) to the screen, he found larger success in the ’90s with The Fisher King (1991) and 12 Monkeys (1995). And now, despite another troubled production, we have a return to classic Gilliam with The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009).

But in terms of being a pure crowd-pleaser, Gilliam’s biggest triumph is undoubtedly Time Bandits (1981). While not as visually dense or bizarre as Brazil, nor as (relatively) sober as 12 Monkeys, Time Bandits possesses an innocent charm that his more cynical works lack. If nothing else, it was the first film to help establish Gilliam as a true auteur and cinematic visionary.

All of the director’s trademarks are here, such aa the use of giants and dwarves (allowing for many low-angle shots), the recurring motif of placing characters in cages (inspired by Walt Disney’s Pinocchio (1940)) and the blurring of the line between fantasy and reality. The production design veers between the stark and the lavish (this dichotomy being another trademark of Gilliam’s) and the humour is, as usual, dark-edged but playful.

The story involves the adventures of Kevin (Craig Warnock), an intellectually curious young boy whose parents seem more interested in gadgets and gameshows than in any of the interests of their son. After being surprised when a knight on horseback bursts into his bedroom one night, Kevin is soon the companion to a group of time-travelling dwarves determined to gather up as much booty as possible while darting from one time period to the next. Ultimately, however, the dwarves want “The Most Fabulous Object in the World”.

All of this takes place against a battle of Good (i.e. the Supreme Being, played by Ralph Richardson) versus Evil (David Warner), allowing for some very witty commentary on Creationism and the problem of evil, both of which are gently satirised without dominating the narrative.

The real theme is the unnecessary excesses of consumerism and the dismissive attitude by some towards anything that doesn’t feature the latest bells and whistles. Will 3D TV really enrich our lives? Do you really need to buy an iPad the day it hits stores? In this way, Time Bandits has much in common with Brazil, but the Orwellian overtones are largely absent in the former’s more family-friendly approach. (It could be argued that the Supreme Being serves the function of Big Brother here, however.)

Putting all that aside, Time Bandits is just good fun, being full of imagination, whimsy and wonder in the tradition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This is a family film that respects its audience, neither talking down to children nor desperately trying to grab cheap laughs from adults using irrelevant pop-culture references. If only the Shrek franchise would be this fresh and inventive.



One response

24 05 2010
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus « Dion at the Flicks

[…] It is also the thematic thread that ties all his work together, from the childhood fantasy of Time Bandits (1981) to the supernatural wonderland of The Brothers Grimm (2005). For over 30 years, Gilliam has […]

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