(1981) dir. Terry Gilliam
Another anomoly of my “films that I had never seen” was Terry Gilliam’s 1981 Time Bandits, arguably, next to his less successful The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), his only “kid flick”. It comes from a time in American cinema when the kid flick, the children’s film, is under fire from the special effects onslaught, the legacy of Star Wars (1977) and what will ultimately transform the Hollywood experience, the digital revolution.
It’s been one of my minor tropes in the film diary, to look at some of these early 1980’s children’s films, and an oddly rewarding one. Time Bandits is arguably among the best. And in some ways, perhaps one of Gilliam’s most successful films. Truly, it is dated, and that level of the film’s charm is a little hard to read. But really, the film works largely because of the characterizations and the humor and adventure, not to mention the far off-the-wall and somewhat more daringly lacking in comfort aspects of the narrative.
I’d like to say that the film is not really “pandering” to the wonder and enjoyment of a children’s film (not a fart joke in sight, for instance), but not shooting to just entertain the adults, the current “state of the state of art” in the industry, if you will. The film’s humor isn’t based purely on puns or double entendres that adults will get but will fly over kids’ heads. It’s an odd and rarely disappointing mixture of adventure, nonsense, and wackiness.
That said, my kids liked it, at times were a bit frightened, but in then end were not really that excited by it. Of recent experiences, it reminded me most of Return to Oz (1985) and The NeverEnding Story (1984), which were also of the very fantastic, relying largely on acting and non-digital special effects. I would say it’s the best of the three by far.
The titular Time Bandits are a group of six “little people” (all men), who burst through the closet door of a small town English boy, dragging him through time and space on a comical and slap-dash adventure, attempting to rob people throughout history. They are armed with a map of time and space and reality that was created by a God-like force, and which they end up having to try to keep out of the hands of a Satan-like force, a duality of good and evil that isn’t particularly challenging, though the film does allow the boy to question why bad things are allowed to happen in a world ruled by good. Something is more than nothing in moral ambiguity.
The story rambles. At one point, Felix says to me: “Are they just going to keep going from door to door in time and never end?” He recognized the lack of build-up and the potential endlessness to the narrative, even though more out of frustration. It’s the difference between awe and entertainment, I suppose. I liked it. For what it’s worth.