Andy's Anachronisms
Time Travel Film Reviews

Time Bandits (1981)
"All the dreams you've ever had - and not just the good ones."

Directed by Terry Gilliam

The Basic Plot

A group of disgruntled dwarves working for the Supreme Being have stolen a map showing the imperfections in the fabric of the universe. Using these holes the group embark on a mission to travel through time plundering the riches of history.

A hole leads the Time Bandits unexpectedly into the bedroom of a young boy in modern day. Kevin finds himself unexpectedly swept up in their adventure as they travel from Napoleonic to the Middle Ages, to Ancient Greece and to the time of Legends and the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness where they confront Evil.

The Analysis

As with much of director Terry Gilliam's work Time Bandits is a visual treat to watch. Where Time Bandits does suffer though is from a lack of focus as Gilliam tries to do too much within the confines of the film. The moments that work the best are those between the dwarves and Kevin, exploring their relationship and Kevin's yearning for a father figure. Michael Palin's cameos as Vincent and John Cleese's appearance as Robin Hood play out like Monty Python-esque skits sandwiched in the middle of this otherwise inventive tale. Perhaps a case of Gilliam not being confident enough about his own work to go it alone, or just giving too much free of reign to co-writer Michael Palin. In any case Gilliam's films are unique in that they look and feel like no other films being made today.

To the best of my knowledge Time Bandits is the only Time Travel movie (or novel for that matter) that I am aware of that incorporates God or the Supreme Being into the plot. (Someone feel free to jump in here and correct me if you know otherwise). Its explained that in God's rush to create the universe there were holes that were over looked. A map was created to document them so that they could be fixed up at a later time. Instead the dwarves hit upon the idea of using the holes to plunder the past.

Not only is the Supreme Being chasing the bandits to force them to return the map, Evil also wants the map, seeing it as an opportunity to seize power and remake the world in his image. Evil loudly disdains God's wasteful effort in creating Earth and all its inhabitants claiming that if he controlled the world, he would have "started with lasers day one!" Evil is keenly interested in the potential of technology even though he doesn't quite understand how it works.

I recently rented the Criterion edition of Time Bandits on DVD and was fortunate enough to have time to listen to much of the audio commentary that comes as an extra. One of the interesting things about Gilliam's commentary is that he original envisioned Time Bandits as a children's story told from the perspective of the child, both literally and figuratively. He had planned on shooting the movie from a child's low perspective, but realized it would be very hard to justify shooting the entire movie in this manner. At the same time he hit upon casting a number of "short people" opposite the child actor not only for the effect of the actors being on the same level physically, but also he felt that there had been very few opportunities for such talented actors as Kenny Baker and David Rappaport to be featured in movies. Most of the actors like Kenny Baker had to settle for behind the scene rolls as R2D2, Ewoks, and Jawas on such movies as the original Star Wars trilogy.

While some of the early 1980s special effects have dated somewhat in the intervening years they do not detract from this movie in the least and in many ways set the stage for other Time Travel related ventures. For example in the television show Sliders the scenes where the characters are deposited in parallel worlds via a wormhole is very reminiscent of the doors opening in Time Bandits and having the characters dropping into the new world.

Ultimately, Time Bandits is a story about a boy longing for an adult role model to look up to. Ignored by his parents, who are content to watch game shows, Kevin seeks solace in his imagination dreaming about other worlds. In fact as with Gilliam's other Time Travel movie Twelve Monkeys, the director purposefully makes some the elements of the story as ambiguous as possible to leave the viewer guessing whether or not the time travel is real or imagined. In the case of Time Bandits if you look closely at Kevin's bedroom all the elements of his adventures are laid out around the bedroom. Gilliam working his visual magic throughout the movie is careful to incorporate these little clues everywhere. There are several scenes in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness where it is very clear that the fortress is constructed from gigantic pieces of Lego. If you look closely the final battle scene also parallels the toy-strewn floor of Kevin's bedroom complete with checkerboard.

Gilliam's idea of a children's movie is more in keeping with the Brothers Grimm fairytales than a modern day politically correct bedtime story. As Gilliam notes during his commentary, what kind of children's movie blows up a dog! The ending is especially dark for a young audience.

[Spoiler Alert]

I believe the comment was made on the DVD that young kids in test audiences had two very different reactions. Young boys didn't seem to upset by the entire thing and young girls wanted to know who was going to take care of Kevin after his parents had been blown up. I recall Gilliam remarking that he felt the point he was trying to make was that it is important for parents to listen to their kids and that there were often dire consequences for ignoring them.

One of the great "fun" time travel movies out there and well worth a look.

Return to Movies by Title Index

Return to Andy's Anachronisms Home

Jump to Internet Movie Database for Time Bandits (1981)