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For a film company with a modest output, Britain's Handmade Films has an admirable record, if not for big successes, then for films deemed worthy of merit. George Harrison and Denis O'Brien initiated some of their own pictures and rescued a few others when they were abandoned by larger UK producing entities, like Monty Python's The Life of Brian and the superior gangster film The Long Good Friday. In 1981's Time Bandits Handmade put its faith behind "Python" filmmaker Terry Gilliam, at the time known mainly for interstitial animations in the Monty Python TV show and movie franchise. Gilliam's fanciful visual imagination and eccentric sense of humor transplanted well to big-screen fantasy. Time Bandits is an original delight from beginning to end, a delightful children's tale outfitted with a keen sense of adult irony. Made for relative pennies, Gilliam's epic easily outclasses many big-scale fantasies to follow. A significant part of its charm is its delightful "handmade" quality -- which makes the Handmade Films logo all the more appropriate.
We're told that Terry Gilliam concocted Time Bandits because Handmade couldn't quite handle the concept or the budget for the film he really wanted to make: Brazil. But his basic story is a gem. A group of "The Supreme Being's" workers (in the bushes & shrubbery department) grow weary of their lowly status and purloin the original map of the universe. As it was constructed only in seven days, the fabric of space and time has numerous holes that the argumentative dwarves can exploit to jump to various places in time -- to pull off spectacular robberies. Dwarf gardener Randall (David Rappaport) bosses the others around: "We agreed to have no leader, so shut up and do as I say!"
While pursued by the disembodied head of The Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson), the dwarves enlist up a willing partner, the lonely, imaginative British schoolboy Kevin (Craig Warnock). Their various adventures include fleecing and being fleeced by such historical luminaries as Napoleon (Ian Holm), Agamemnon (Sean Connery) and Robin Hood (John Cleese). The diminutive bandits also interfere in the love life of the silly-twit sweethearts Vincent and Pansy (Michael Palin & Shelley Duvall), who appear in Robin Hood's forest and on the deck of the Titanic. To evade The Supreme Being, Randall takes his motley gang into the land of magic, hoping to steal a fabulous fortune hidden in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness. This of course is a trap laid by Evil (David Warner), a self-important demon intent on securing the map of space and time, with the intent of usurping The Supreme Being and taking control over the universe. The intrepid Time Bandits perform a daring escape, but under Kevin's moral leadership realize that the map must be retrieved at any cost.
Charged with enthusiastic high spirits, Time Bandits continually confronts us with ingenious design ideas harnessed to solid storytelling. Terry Gilliam and his production designer Milly Burns concoct dozens of clever sets, incorporating miniatures and limited special effects to achieve specific visual aims. A town in Lombardy burns under Napoleon's bombardment -- it's either a well-chosen ruin or a redressed studio set. A real ancient city stands in for Agamemnon's Greece, a pricey bit of location work in Tunisia that makes the film look lavishly expensive (even the light is different).
Gilliam's miniature castles, monsters and ships at sea, etc. were clearly designed to fulfill only what was required by the scripted storyboards. Careful planning sidesteps the wholesale waste seen in 'anything goes' effects films of the time that created huge illusions but only used a bit of them on-screen. 1 One of the most impressive effects is a sailing ship that is revealed to be nothing more than a hat worn by an enormous giant, who emerges dripping from the ocean in slow motion, stomping with ten-league strides across a sandy landscape. Thanks to Gilliam's excellent taste and art direction, the giant is a showstopper. Likewise, a tilt-crane shot up what seems to be an endlessly tall Fortress of Ultimate Darkness turns into a clever "overkill" joke, like the long, long spaceship shot in Star Wars.
Entertaining stagecraft and terrific costumes make an enormous contribution to the show's impact -- costume designer Jim Acheson dresses dwarves, heroes and fantastic creatures in a wonderful selection of "lived-in" uniforms and raggedy tunics. A dance performance in Agamemnon's Greece evokes a simple delight in color and movement. Ancient times, for once, looks like a charming place to live.
Viewers have been quick to compare Time Bandits to The Wizard of Oz, and the parallels are certainly there -- an odd adventure away from home, a 'wizard' who appears as a floating head, the mission to a forbidding castle to destroy the evil villain within. Kevin falls in with six very un-Munchkin-like dwarves trying their best to be despicable thieves. Strung upside-down by Robin Hood's gang of swarthy thugs, Randall screws up his face to attest to his desire to be a really, really nasty bad guy. Yet we know that the bandits are really swell guys at heart.
The heroes encountered by Kevin and his bandits derive from Kevin's daydreams and studies, another Oz-like parallel. But some of them are just as disappointing as Kevin's own parents, consumer zombies obsessed with kitchen appliances. Napoleon is a dolt who loves violent Punch 'n' Judy shows. The condescending Robin Hood smiles with upper-class insincerity at Randall & Kevin's bandits as he steals their golden loot.
Although the universe is put back in order at the finish (or, almost in order), Time Bandits makes wicked fun of the notion of a benevolent paternalistic God. As embodied by Ralph Richardson, The Supreme Being is a sober elitist with no patience for his (admittedly) untrustworthy minions. As it turns out, the bandits' entire jaunt has been engineered to enable TSB to rid himself of another concentration of "pure, undiluted Evil". For Kevin, there's no reassurance that heaven really cares about him personally. This minor point makes Time Bandits different from most children's fantasies: it doesn't reinforce traditional values. The rather ironic finish back home leaves Kevin's future definitely up in the air. But tragedy is the last thing on our minds, as we're convinced that Kevin will be better off fending for himself anyway. He's a great kid with a natural sense of morality.
The one character not lampooned is Sean Connery's Agamemnon. The Greek king plays straight with Kevin, smites wicked monsters, dispenses justice with a fair hand and laughs like a child at simple entertainment. Kevin probably doesn't want to be stuck back in the ignorance and pestilence of the B.C. world, but Agamemnon is ideal as an adoptive father. Young children that see Time Bandits instantly love Sean Connery.
Time Bandits was an enormous success in the United States, and launched Terry Gilliam on the road to bigger and better things, including his dream project Brazil. He also encountered his ill-fated run-ins with what he termed "the hamster factor", a creeping tendency for his complicated productions to go wrong in completely unpredictable ways. Braziland The Adventures of Baron Munchausen had much larger budgets but continued Gilliam's style of "handmade" illusions and cinematic trompe l'oeil magic. His filmography is a good argument for the claim that Computer Generated Imagery has effectively killed off the cinematic magic of special effects. Many of the effects in Gilliam's later The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus are pixel-perfect CGI work. Now that anything can be presented on screen, the effects just sit there looking woefully "unspecial".
Image Entertainment's Blu-ray of Time Bandits is a snappy transfer of this wonderful fantasy. The starring bandits (David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, Malcolm Dixon, Mike Edmonds, Jack Purvis, Tiny Ross) are even more fun when we can see all of their faces more clearly, hamming up their group scenes. The occasional optical shots sometimes reveal a little dirt or grain, but the higher resolution allows us to appreciate added detail in the scene with the nasty ogre Winston and his loving wife (Peter Vaughan & Katherine Helmond). The surprise is that the disc is encoded interlaced, at 1020i, instead of progressive, the standard for features on Blu-ray.
In addition to a trailer, the presentation gives us an older Q&A with Gilliam, who eagerly clears up some questions about the film and acknowledges the Oz connection. He's proud of his achievement, as must have been executive producer George Harrison. The ex-Beatle was a class act as a movie producer, perhaps in response to the shoddy rip-off treatment given his earlier Concert for Bangladesh, which he intended to benefit relief aid, not a bunch of greedy music companies. Harrison contributes Dream Away, a jaunty song for the end credits. It caps the show like a kiss of approval from a happy producer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Time Bandits Blu-ray rates:
1. 1941 spent an entire year building two enormous city miniatures. Although a lot of production value is on the screen in that picture, thousands of expensive hours of studio work went into marvelous miniature buildings barely seen, and effects not used.
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T'was Ever Thus.