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Time Bandits

Image // PG // August 24, 2010
List Price: $17.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted August 21, 2010 | E-mail the Author
"If I were creating a world, I wouldn't mess around with butterflies and daffodils. I would've started with lasers! Eight o'clock, day one."

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so the heavens and the earth were all hammered out in the space of a week. Six days is kind of a quick turnaround for crafting the fabric of the universe, and the contractors that the Supreme Being farmed all that out to had to do a helluva rush job to hit that deadline. A few gaping rifts were left in the space/time continuum, and if you stumble onto one, you might be transported to...oh, the Napoleonic wars or Sherwood Forest or last Tuesday night so you can pay your phone bill on time. The man upstairs put together a map of these many different doorways, and there's a work order floating around to spackle over all of these holes. A gaggle of pint-sized employees for the Supreme Being, bored with designing shrubs and stinky trees, have wound up getting their wee little hands on the map. Why fix all those hiccups in the space/time continuum when you can use 'em as gateways to transdimensional high robbery? The idea's that they can snatch history's most legendary treasures and duck into a time portal before anyone can blink twice. So, yeah: time bandits.

Alright! So they wield the means to transport themselves to any time and any place, past, present, or future. Where do they trot off to first? To swipe da Vinci's notebooks? To empty out the Louvre? To grab a sports almanac from the future and swoop on over to Vegas? Nope. First up on the hit parade is a British tyke's bedroom. I guess there's kind of a learning curve to carving a path through space and time, and it doesn't help that the floating, disembodied head of the Supreme Being is in hot pursuit. Kevin (Craig Warnock) lets himself get dragged along as these three-foot bandits tear apart his bedroom in search of an exit. What has he got to lose? His insufferably bland parents only care about sitting on their plastic-covered furniture, staring blankly at vapid TV game shows, and trying to keep up with the latest and greatest at the housewares department at Sears. He's young! He has a thirst for adventure! Having taken a few years of history classes might come in handy while palling around with a bunch of fun-size wannabe bandits as they bound around through time.

Kevin and his new friends -- which maybe isn't the right word seeing as how they're not altogether friendly -- start wreaking havoc through history. They wind up being minted as Napoleon's latest generals and sneak off with a bunch of gilded chalices and the Mona Lisa. They pal around with Robin Hood, who has a very different take on the whole banditry thing than they do. They play it up as jesters for King Agamemnon and dupe him into forking over an entire chest of treasures. The lot of them try to steer clear of the Supreme Being, wholly unaware that their every move is being closely monitored by the embodiment of Evil (David Warner). See, Evil's been trapped in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness for...well, ever, I guess, and the Supreme Being's map is his ticket out. While the Supreme Being's distracted by lovingly crafting 43 different species of parrot or whatever, Evil would chuck that out in favor of technological domination at the dawn of time. Microchips! Microwaves! Micro-other-things! 'Course, Evil can't step foot outside his fortress prison, but that's okay. The Fortress of Ultimate Darkness has within its walls the most amazing creation in the known universe, and all Evil has to do is convince the bandits to waltz in and swipe it... Cue the ominous sting in the score! And maybe a violent clap of thunder. Yeah, that sounds about right.

The easiest way to cram this review down to just a few short words would be to say that Time Bandits is a fairy tale adventure filtered through the boundless imaginations of Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin. Most family movies nowadays are tested within a quarter-inch of their lives and have the edges dulled like Saf-T-Scissors. Time Bandits, meanwhile, is completely untethered, leaving Gilliam's imagination free to run rampant. The mechanics of the screenplay never really get in the way. The movie doesn't spend the first twenty minutes setting up the plot and establishing its characters. Heck, you're barely a few minutes in before a mounted horse crashes through a wardrobe. Time Bandits prefers to dive in headfirst and cobble together a quick explanation later, and that makes it easier to become that much more deeply immersed in its magic. The overall structure of the movie shouldn't be all that hard for kids to follow since it's mostly a series of loosely connected vignettes, each with its own Special Guest Star, and the plot's there to just string 'em all together. There's something almost stream-of-consciousness about the way it unfolds. When Gilliam and Palin have
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had their fill with a scene, they can just lop it off right there and have the bandits dive into another rift in time. If they're not sure what to do after Kevin and company square off against an ogre and his wife, they have a colossal giant step out of the water with their ship perched atop his head. There are no nasty rules shackling much of anything in place.

Like the best family movies, Time Bandits plays every bit as well for adults as it does for the kids in the crowd. There's a smirking sense of satire about commercialism, for one, and doe-eyed lovers Michael Palin and Shelley Duvall act ridiculous enough to keep the younger set cracking up while the innuendo that's being lobbed out soars clear over their heads. And hey, the allure of high adventure isn't limited to any age in particular. Every sequence involves some kind of frantic chase against hopelessly overbearing nemeses -- the minions of the impossibly powerful Evil Genius and his anthropomorphomancery, Napoleon's battalion of half-naked officers, a flesh-eating ogre, a towering giant, and...heck, puffing on cigars on the deck chairs of the Titanic, even -- and that generally keeps the adrenaline rush screaming along. Gilliam strikes a marvelous balance between the dark streak of Grimm fairy tale with the wide-eyed innocence of a family-friendly flick. Time Bandits is gleefully, cacklingly twisted without ever crossing the line and unnerving kids. I can't help but love movies like this that are made with children in mind but don't pander or talk down to them.

Time Bandits' sense of humor is expectedly brilliant, and the fairy tale backdrop gives Gilliam and Palin free reign to swoop in with whatever gag springs to mind. Napoleon (Ian Holm) is obsessed with rattling off the precise heights of conquerors throughout history, and his idea of entertainment is to see men tinier than himself repeatedly whack each other. Kinda goes without saying that he hits it off with the time bandits marvelously. As Robin Hood (John Cleese) starts redistributing our plucky little antiheroes' ill-gotten goods to the poor, every broke fellow that passes through the line gets slugged in the face by one of his scarred flunkies. A confused Hood asks if that's absolutely necessary, and his mush-mouthed flunkie responds that unfortunately, yes, it is. Hood shrugs and keeps going. Does it make any sense? No. Did it crack me up when I was eleven? You bet. Same reaction twenty full years later? Yup. And hey, what better way to get in the good graces of a cannibalistic ogre than to play chiropractor? Even nearly three full decades after Time Bandits roared into theaters, its ambitious visual eye still manages to marvel. Each sequence is set in an entirely different world than the last. Gilliam augments amost every one of those set pieces with some sort of
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optical effect or inspired model work. Every square inch of the screen has something to grab the audience's attention. If the half-half-man/half-pig on-screen isn't enough for you, maybe the reveal in the background that the crumbling fortress is made of oversized Lego bricks is. The effects work holds up exceptionally well and remains a testament to Gilliam's ingenuity, brilliant cinematic eye, and unrestrained imagination.

The biggest downside to my eyes is that Time Bandits is overflowing with too many ideas, and Gilliam seems unsure which ones he ought to cull. The momentum can sputter and stutter; as much as I like the movie, I feel like it has a tendency to drag on too long. Time Bandits clocks in just shy of two hours but feels fifteen minutes longer than that. Sean Connery is note-for-note perfect as King Agamemnon, easily the most virtuous and endearing character in the entire film, but the dramatic element that swoops in between His Royal Majesty and Kevin ultimately winds up feeling inessential. It hits all the right emotional beats but seems out of place just the same, dragging down the pace without adding all that much more meat to gnaw on. The sequence on the Titanic seems like an excuse for a breather...a chance to rattle off a few pages of exposition...that probably could been snuck in elsewhere. With some additional tightening in those two scenes in particular, I think I'd be a much more rabid fan of the film. As much as I like Time Bandits, it doesn't strike me as being in quite the same league as Gilliam's other directorial efforts of the '80s, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and the long-overdue-on-Blu-ray Brazil. ...but hey! I still love the movie, from its runaway imagination to its brilliant cast to the Pythonesque absurdity that's sopping in every last frame.

Since I haven't really said much of anything critical about Time Bandits, you might be curious why the words "Rent It" are printed in tiny bold letters on the sidebar over there. Well, when Image gobbled up the rights to the Handmade Films library, I guess they were forked over a stack of musty, dated master tapes and just used whatever they had handy. The reviews of every one of these releases that I've come across have been tremendously disappointing, and unfortunately, the same goes for Time Bandits. If the repertory house down the road had a battered print on the shelf and unspooled it one Sunday afternoon, it'd probably look a lot like what you're offered here. For such a successful and popular film, Time Bandits has been stuck with a third-rate treatment on Blu-ray, and almost none of the extras from the myriad of DVDs over the past decade have clawed their way onto this disc. Then again, it's cheap, so there's that. Me, though...? I'd rather pay more for something worth owning. This isn't it. Rent It.

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looks to have grabbed hold of the same hazy, battered, dust-caked master used for every other Blu-ray release of Time Bandits across the globe. Eager to find some way to make the movie look even worse in high-def, this disc is presented at 1080i, even, and at a much leaner bitrate than the rest of the lot. Interlaced releases of even the most marginal feature films are unheard of on Blu-ray, and even with the thousand or so high-def discs that've passed through my hands over the past few years, the last 1080i flick I can remember coming across was Short Circuit, which not surprisingly is also an Image release. Hmmm. Time Bandits looks like something I would've caught on HBO-HD in 2002 or something. Fine detail is lackluster. Saddled with an anemic bitrate, this AVC encode doesn't hold up to any sort of scrutiny. The image suffers from heavy wear, and along with the inordinate amount of dust that's peppered across every scene are some nasty, nasty scratches. It doesn't seem as if any effort whatsoever went into cleaning up the film for Blu-ray, and I'd be surprised if this transfer was struck anytime in the past eight years.

The best thing I can say about Time Bandits is that despite being so weathered and worn, this is still less terrible than Image's release of Withnail and I. At the end of the day, it's a familiar trade-off. As awful as Time Bandits looks, it's still a considerable improvement over the ancient non-anamorphic DVDs some of you may still have on the shelf, and a couple of stores online carry it for all of twelve bucks. At the same time, even with that bargain basement sticker price, I still don't want to support such staggeringly lazy work. I'd be writing a completely different review if the disc were even a little bit worthwhile, but as it is, I really can't recommend Time Bandits as anything more than a rental.

One last quick barrage of technical stuff: Time Bandits has been slapped onto a single layer Blu-ray disc, and the film is presented without any matting.

...and maybe this is around the time that you start to breathe a sigh of relief, noting that Time Bandits sports a six-channel, 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. There's that, sure, but I'm not done griping about this Blu-ray disc quite yet. I really would've just as soon had the original stereo soundtrack rather than this 5.1 remix. Quite a bit of effort has been made to ensure that the surrounds are kept chattering throughout, but the use of the rears too frequently comes across as forced and gimmicky. None of it -- from the bandits stumbling around the toys on Kevin's bedroom floor all the way to a few thousand years' worth of military might being unleashed in the climax -- sounds all that natural, and it's kind of awkward to see the characters interacting with things in front of me while hearing it from behind. The sense of directionality it tries to flesh out doesn't really mesh with what's unfolding on-screen. On the upside, Time Bandits' dialogue remains discernable throughout. The mix is quite thin, but there are a few scattered moments when the low-end halfway flexes its muscles: the resounding footsteps of a lumbering giant, minions-go-boom, and the pounding percussion in the score. Dated, unimpressive, needlessly remixed, but still passably okay.

Along with the lossless audio, also piled on here are an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track and a French dub in stereo. No subtitles have been included, and again, its original soundtrack is missing in action.

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again, the extras from the Criterion DVD release are nowhere to be found, but at least there's something. This Blu-ray disc features a recently recorded 18 minute interview -- in standard definition and anamorphic widescreen -- with director/producer/co-writer Terry Gilliam. It's also appreciated that the interview's runtime isn't padded with long snippets from the movie or anything either. Aside from brief question cards, there's nothing to it but pure, unadulterated Gilliam. This conversation tackles quite a bit: Gilliam knocking out Time Bandits primarily because he was unable to get Brazil off the ground, a couple of completely unexpected happy accidents while casting, handmade visuals effects that made use of everything from magnets to condensed milk, crafting a film that's "intelligent enough for children and exciting enough for adults", how three reels of butchered audio during a test screening got Gilliam the ending he'd been fighting for, and how adjusted for inflation, Time Bandits remains Gilliam's most financially successful film on these shores, along with quite a bit more.

The only other extra is a three minute, standard-def theatrical trailer that riffs on the overwrought narration in these sorts of things.

The Final Word
Even dragged down by this sort of cut-rate presentation on Blu-ray, Time Bandits still remains an infectiously nostalgic blast. Admittedly, I'd point to it as my least favorite of the three films that Terry Gilliam directed throughout the 1980s, and the pacing isn't as consistently nimble as I'd like, but it's impossible not to get swept up in these diabolically imaginative barrages of fairy tale whimsy. There's a smirking sort of magic to it all that only Labyrinth and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen would be able to match that decade. There's also a strong undercurrent of satire and innuendo that makes Time Bandits every bit as much fun for adults as it is for the junior set. It's such a slug to the gut to see a film this widely adored wind up with such a lackluster presentation on Blu-ray. Sure, I can buy this chintzy take on Time Bandits for $12, but I'd rather pay twice as much and see it done right. My vote...? Rent It.
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