Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a regular feature on Cinema 52 where I put my weekly viewing of Back to the Future on hold and watch another movie featuring time travel for comparison. It may not keep me sane, but it will probably always involve one guy shouting, “This doesn’t make any sense!” And that’s good enough for me.

TIME BANDITS (1981)

Time Bandits is the story of a child named Kevin (David Warnock) who likes reading history books and a bunch of itty bitty time-traveling thieves who end up in his bedroom and whisk him away on their adventures, but none of these characters are important enough to be on the poster. They commute via holes that the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson) left in time and space, and he’s none too pleased that these bandits have stolen his map of the passageways between them. What will happen when he catches them?

THE STORY:
Can I really use the word “story” here?

THE COLLECTION OF SCENES THAT ARE OCCASIONALLY FUNNY BUT PADDED WITH A LOT OF CONFUSING SYMBOLISM, NEEDLESSLY LONG MOMENTS OF NOTHING HAPPENING, AND INTERMITTENT MORSELS OF CLEVERLY DARK SOCIAL SATIRE:
Ah, there we are.

I’ll crap on this movie, but I don’t feel completely okay about it. There are some slivers of real brilliance in it. But before we get to those, wow, how does a film about jumping around in history manage to always find the most boring parts of it?

I feel you, Napoléon. What else is on?

There’s a prime example. Napoléon (Ian Holm) is just watching some performers on a stage in front of him, barking out orders as to what he would like to see next. Because it’s Terry Gilliam, it’s supposed to be some clever commentary on how modern society is addicted to television and some things never change, but still… eh? I was kind of hoping for some adventure here. But maybe Terry is deliberately subverting my expectations by– you know what? No. Don’t smart your way out of this, Terry. Parts of this movie just don’t work, no matter what the message is.

If there isn’t some deeper symbolism going on, then there’s usually some rejected Monty Python sketch shoved into the movie. Sometimes they’re funny, but they don’t really, you know… move the plot. Maybe I’m too obsessed with plots and Terry is subverting– agh, no! I subvert your subversion, goddammit!

This scene should have been its own movie.

The film is self-aware, but only partially. My favorite aspect is that our heroes are being pursued by both the Supreme Being and the Evil Genius (David Warner), who’s pretty much supposed to be Satan and also wants to steal the map. Evil G is constantly just talking about how much he loves evil, but not in any way that suggests he has a clear motive. He kind of just understands that movies like this need a bad guy. This is great as both a meta-wink at bad screenplays and a look at a child’s understanding of evil: mostly just Saturday morning cartoons. And isn’t the idea of Satan really just a childish– oh, there you go being brilliant again, Terry.

The time travel in this movie is God-based, so it’s magic, but it doesn’t even follow any logic. They travel to “the time of legends,” which basically has monsters and shit. Then they smash through the wall of reality and there’s a creepy castle made of stone Legos. No flux capacitors here. And this all makes sense because it’s fairly obvious that The Whole Thing Is a Dream Or Is It.

“Bond to MI-6. Targets have been neutralized. Sweet dreams, kiddo!”

THE ACTING:
It certainly helps the performances if I’m emotionally invested in the characters, but that just doesn’t happen here. It’s more like the Terry Gilliam and Friends Cameo Hour. I can certainly applaud Ralph Richardson and David Warner for being the best God and Satan I’ve ever seen in a movie, but again, they’re integral to the plot. Jim Broadbent and Sean Connery and John Cleese and Michael Palin are all fun versions of themselves, but they disappear so quickly that there isn’t much to praise.

I’d talk about David Warnock as Kevin, but for a movie that’s essentially taking place in his mind (or? is? it?), there isn’t much focus on him, oddly enough.

“Hey Terry… can I go home while you’re filming that knife-head merry-go-round bullshit?”

The time bandits are rather fun rough-and-tumble characters, and they carry the movie very well. David Rappaport’s Randall finds the balance between charming and self-centered, and you can’t help but be drawn to him. No time is wasted on giving the other bandits any significant character traits, which is a bit of a shame, but they’re an entertaining bunch. Perhaps a more focused screenplay would have fleshed them out and given them opportunities to shine individually. Maybe that’ll happen in the remake.

And the bandits will be sexier, of course.

THE SPECIAL EFFECTS:
The time travel effects are a simple rectangle that slides open in the fabric of space, kind of like how hologram Al shows up on Quantum Leap, but vertical.

It’s raining mannequins.

Since it’s a Terry Gilliam flick, most of the other effects are done practically and blend fairly well with the fantastic sets and costumes. I could nitpick on a few negatives and green screens, but for the most part, Terry knows what he’s doing when it comes to visuals and he does it well.

OTHER STUFF:

  • Adam Ferguson, friend of the blog and frequent accomplice for our Time Out viewings, points out that this is not the only time Ian Holm has played Napoléon. He also portrayed Monsieur Bonaparte prior to Time Bandits in a 1974 mini-series called Napoleon and Love and post-Bandits in The Emperor’s New Clothes in 2001.
  • My viewing party kept noticing repeated instances of losing limbs in the film. Napoléon’s golden arm is stolen, two different skeletons get their arms ripped off, the ogre has hands and feet on meat hooks… is this a window into some innate fear Terry Gilliam has? If you spot any others, comments section us.

THE “NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE!” MOMENT:
Sorry. Gotta skip this section this week. Kids just don’t question God.

Enjoy this screen grab as a consolation.

FINAL THOUGHTS:
Time Bandits deserves credit for trying to be a darker, edgier children’s film, but while some parts are irreverent and clever, the fact remains that the sum total of these pieces adds up to an overlong, unfocused narrative that doesn’t make up for this weakness with enough entertainment. I respect it for being different, but it’s not something I’ll be hankering to watch again any time soon. As a time travel movie, Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys is far superior, but that could be because he didn’t write it. I suggest you throw it on if your kids are over The Wizard of Oz but aren’t quite ready for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

LATER THIS WEEK:
Los cronocrímenes (2007)

Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.