The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
A whimsical and wonderful adventure through space and time
Criterion continue their 4K treatment of Terry Gilliam’s oeuvre with The Fisher King and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (bring on Brazil please) with one of his most cherished features, Time Bandits. Another fantastical adventure that traverses time and space, but begins in a young boys bedroom. Kevin (a wide eyed and eager performance from Craig Warnock) is a precocious child, who prefers to escape to the solitude of his room and invention of his imagination, rather than spend time in the drudgery of his detached family and the rote world outside.
One night, a man mounted on a horse charges out of through the wardrobe in his room, and as quickly as it appeared, vanishes. The following night six dwarfs burst into his room. In their possession is a mysterious scroll. A map to portals in the universe that they stole from their boss, the Supreme Being. Kevin gets swept up in their escape and soon finds himself caught up in their hi-jinks as they hop through different eras, meeting famed characters such as Robin Hood (John Cleese), King Agamemnon (Sean Connery), and Napoleon (Ian Holm), all while looking to evade capture and line their pockets. But, danger lurks on the horizon as Evil learns of the map being in their possession, and sets out to take it for himself.
Gilliam’s films are always a blend of light and dark, humor and tragedy, but Time Bandits stands out as a film that feels like it was more squarely aimed at kids. In no way does it feel compromised in this regard. The film does not pander or condescend, or fail to deliver moments to make you think or react. Rather, the darkness is tempered, the weirdness feels more playful, and danger is replaced by a more earnest sense of discovery. Part of this comes from a focus on a young protagonist as well as this rambunctious crew of titular time bandits, brought to life though endearing performances from David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, Malcom Dixon, Mike Edmonds, Jack Purvis, and Tiny Ross. Gilliam regulars such as Michael Palin (also serving as co-writer) and John Cleese add a healthy dose of British charm and quirkiness. Gravitas comes in the form of Sean Connery, Ralph Richardson, Ian Holm, Peter Vaughn, and a devilish turn from David Warner as Evil himself. Historical legends, characters toying with stereotypes (most notably Palin pairing with a wonderful Shelley Duval as a sexually repressed English couple), fabelistic figures, all offering opportunities for these bandits to get into trouble, or out of it. The adventure is tangible thanks to superb production design, realizing period eras, and also Gothic-tilted fantasy scenes, steampunk inspired props, practical effects, miniature design, and brilliant costume design. Time Bandits is a feast for the eyes, illuminated by the sterling work of cinematographer Peter Biziou. Gilliam’s direction showcases all the detail and depth of this work with aplomb, balancing epic fantasy with the experience and perspective of this young boy swept up in it all. From meeting heroes and villains, to thrilling action, and the surprisingly emotional weight and moral musings of the climax, Time Bandits is a whimsical and wonderful adventure through space and time.
Criterion offer up an all new new 4K restoration, one overseen by director Terry Gilliam. The transfer is pristine, showcasing a superb range and representation of colors, deep blacks, and crisp whites. Contrast, and the ensuing detail and density of image, is a standout. A consistently high quality transfer. The 4K version is also accompanied by a Blu-ray version of the same transfer on a disc that also contains associated extra features:
- Audio commentary featuring Gilliam, cowriter-actor Michael Palin, and actors John Cleese, David Warner, and Craig Warnock: Gilliam drives the commentary and offers plenty of info as to his thoughts and process in making the film, as well as the on set experience. The cuts to the other talent isn’t too smooth, but they offer an array of alternate perspectives and experiences, making for an overall compelling commentary
- Program on the creation of the film’s various historical periods and fantasy worlds, narrated by film writer David Morgan and featuring production designer Milly Burns and costume designer James Acheson: Building the worlds and looks of Time Bandits is a notable effort in itself, and this is a welcome featurette that devotes some time to the people behind these accomplishments, ranging from concept drawings, concept design, model making, and more
- Conversation between Gilliam and film scholar Peter von Bagh, recorded at the 1998 Midnight Sun Film Festival: The standout amongst the extras. Running around 80 minutes, this is a superb exchange that delves into the career and psyche of Gilliam, including his personal life, professional aspirations, influences on his filmmaking style, politics, conflicts with the industry and himself too
- Appearance by actor Shelley Duvall on Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow show from 1981: The actress largely talks about the film at hand, but she does open up the conversation to some of her earlier roles too, as well as spending some time championing the production talent on Time Bandits
- Gallery of rare photographs from the set:
- PLUS: An essay by critic David Sterritt: Included in the liner booklet, which also details the restoration/transfer of this 4K version of the film
The Bottom Line
Time Bandits is a wonderful marriage of adventure and Gilliam’s trademark quirks and whimsy. A brilliant ensemble, superb production values, and a memorable tale, combine to magical effect. Criterion’s release offers up a pristine 4K transfer, and nice selection of extra features, that help celebrate one of Gilliam’s most enjoyable features.
Time Bandits 4K-UHD is available via Criterion now