WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits is a film of great imagination and fantastic imagery and silly Pythonesque humor, "a film exciting enough for adults and intelligent enough for kids," as Gilliam says in one of this disc's supplements. It's an episodic tall tale of good triumphing over evil, and it's also a surprisingly philosophical film that explores the meaning of evil and the existence of God. All this from a film shot on virtually no budget, told from a kid's point of view, and starring a cast full of little people.
Terry Gilliam was between directorial efforts with Monty Python (The Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life), and fresh off his first foray into his own brand of filmmaking (Jabberwocky) when he tackled the ambitious project that was Time Bandits. It was 1981, a few years before he would begin work on what would be his masterwork, Brazil, and indeed, you can see the germ of Brazil in many of Time Bandits' sequences, just as you can see it in the short film that begins The Meaning of Life. (Gilliam maintains that Time Bandits is the first film in a loose trilogy that also contains Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.) And like Jabberwocky, Time Bandits has a strong Python feel, a predilection for silly British humor and outrageous sight gags.
Time Bandits is the story of young Kevin (Craig Warnock), a smart British boy with—we will come to understand—a fantastically fertile imagination. He is a voracious reader, and his walls are plastered with drawings of knights and monsters. One night, an absurd troupe of time-traveling midgets (David Rappaport, Malcolm Dixon, Mike Edmonds, Jack Purvis, Tiny Ross, and Kenny Baker) bursts into his room, by way of his wardrobe, and whisks young Kevin away on an epic adventure that will span centuries and become a crazy battle between good and evil. As Kevin discovers, the adventurous midgets have stolen a time-portal map from the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson) and are using it to rob and pillage across time. They're time pirates! But look out, here comes the ultimate Evil (David Warner) with plans of his own for the map, and the wee time bandits scurry from place to place, from era to era, at first fleeing the inevitable confrontation between Good and Evil but finally facing the dark genius in his cavernous fortress and attempting to outwit him.
Their adventures take them to the court of a small-of-stature-and-mind Napoleon (Ian Holm), and to Sherwood Forest, where Robin Hood (John Cleese) rules cluelessly. Kevin takes a detour to meet King Agamemnon (Sean Connery), and the troupe also finds itself aboard the RMS Titanic on its fateful voyage. There are also funny bits involving an ogre (Peter Vaughan) and his beautiful wife (Katherine Helmond), and a colossal giant who wears an unfortunate hat. The episodic nature of the plot gives Time Bandits the feel of an imagination bursting at the seams, as if Gilliam had so many ideas that he threw them all in the pot and simply strung them all together with his time-travel device. Despite that, Time Bandits works quite wonderfully, offering many pleasures for the eyes and the mind.
Cowritten by Gilliam and Python cohort Michael Palin, Time Bandits is an excellent film for all ages—though it's not perfect. It's uneven and occasionally frustrating. Its microbudget is quite apparent at its frayed edges, and even though Gilliam has done marvelous work on a shoestring, his ideas are clearly far above his means, and the result is an often cheap-looking film with cheesy effects (particularly by today's standards). Also, although the many cameo turns are amusing, they're not completely effective in terms of storytelling. A recurring bit with Michael Palin and Shelley Duvall is curiously unsatisfying in its Pythonesqueness, and an extended turn by Sean Connery is unsatisfying for different reasons, as if its purpose is under-explored.
Still, Time Bandits is a great kid flick—full of adventure, dreams, nightmares, and fantasy. It's got jokey history thrown into the mix, and fanciful visuals that are sure to spark the imagination. Best of all, its humor will appeal to the parents, with ribald asides and nudge-nudge pokes at historical figures.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Anchor Bay presents Time Bandits in a very impressive anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. Wow, this is a great image, particularly considering the age of the film (23 years) and its low-budget origins. Detail and sharpness are exemplary, and colors are accurate, if not particularly vivid. There's some inevitable grain to be found, most often in bright scenes, but the image is in general impressively filmlike, and having seen Time Bandits in theaters, I can tell you that this image quality betters anything I saw during its initial release. This DiviMax transfer is really something special, very rich and satisfying. There's also a pleasing lack of edge enhancement (although I witnessed minimal edge halos here and there), and I noticed no instances of digital artifacting.
A direct comparison with the older Criterion release reveals that this new transfer is leaps and bounds above the quality of that effort. Besides the obvious disadvantage of being non-anamorphic, the Criterion image contains a lot of detail-obscuring grain, and its colors are muted and washed out. It has a general murkiness, and the print itself is rather dirty. The differences in sharpness and shadow detail between the old release and the new release are striking.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc comes with a rich Dolby Digital Surround EX track, as well as the original tinny and murky Dolby 2.0 track. The preferred track is the EX surround track, but it has its own major drawback: lack of bass. Although the soundtrack is quite aggressive and entertaining, and fixes some of the flatness and shrillness of the original soundtrack, it has a significant emptiness in the low end. (Interestingly, the 2.0 track has more beefiness there.) That being said, the front soundstage is generous, and the surrounds get quite a workout, particularly with Mike Moran's score, which sounds clear and energetic. The audio has, however, suffered some loss in fidelity, and so you'll occasionally hear some distortion at the high end.
Unfortunately, as with earlier incarnations of this film on DVD, this edition contains no subtitles or closed captioning.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
If you have the Criterion Collection edition, you'll definitely want to hang on to it. Its supplements are completely different. Perhaps the biggest omission on this new Anchor Bay edition is the lack of an audio commentary. The Criterion disc contains a terrific, informative commentary by Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, John Cleese, David Warner, and Craig Warnock, as well as the photo-based Time Bandits Scrapbook. It's a shame that Anchor Bay couldn't license that commentary, or even better, record a new one. This new Anchor Bay disc contains some good supplements, however. An advantage of these supplements is that they're presented in anamorphic widescreen.
First up is the 27-minute Interview with Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam, which is full of present-day (actually, 2002) recollections of germinating the idea, writing the script, and casting. Most of all, this is a terrific discussion about the ideas behind the film. They're both very animated about the imaginative concepts that they love, laughing as they reminisce. As far as setting, the interview is pretty static, taking place as the two sit on a couch, and scenes from the film occasionally break up the monotony of the setting.
Next is the 59-minute documentary The Directors: The Films of Terry Gilliam (which recently was available only on a standalone DVD). This is a retrospective of Gilliam's entire career, from his animation beginnings with Monty Python, through his feature films Jabberwocky, Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys, and a very brief peek at Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The documentary features long minutes of interview footage with Gilliam himself, as well as with some of his actors, including Shelley Duvall, Katherine Helmond, Brad Pitt, Amanda Plummer, Mercedes Ruehl, Madeliene Stowe, and David Warner. It's a nice encapsulation of a fascinating career, and I'm glad to have it, but Time Bandits gets only 10 minutes of light coverage. I would rather have had a featurette that kept its focus on the film at hand, rather than a port from another DVD. Interestingly, though, this presentation windowboxes the documentary for widescreen sets, whereas the original DVD is full-frame.
You also get two Trailers, the international version and the U.S. version. The international trailer is a great comic piece in the tradition of Monty Python, and its gimmick will remind you of the recent trailer for Jerry Seinfeld's Comedian.
To wrap things up, the disc offers an extensive text-based Terry Gilliam Bio, and as a DVD-ROM feature, the entire Screenplay in PDF format.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Time Bandits is a wonderful film for kids (not too young, though!), and its appeal is intact today, even though some of its elements aren't as strong as they could be. It is a film full of imagination and wonder. The DVD is terrific, if not outstanding. Image and sound quality are above average, and although the supplements are somewhat disappointing, they do impart some excellent behind-the-scenes tidbits.