Thursday, August 25, 2011

Time Bandits

Time Bandits (Terry Gilliam, 1981) As a filmmaker, Terry Gilliam grew up on Time Bandits, while still maintaining the childish sense of fun and menace that permeated his work before and during the Monty Python days.  It's a work of pure imagination, a circus-y freak show that just might kill you, where time is the scene of the crime, and even God and Satan are susceptible to the charms of a precocious little boy and a voracious team of avaricious little people.  One's tempted to say it's Gilliam's version of "Snow White" or a flipped version of "The Wizard of Oz," but that would be taking the piss and anarchy out of it.

11 year old Kevin (Craig Warnock) is fascinated with Ancient Greece, which some parents might find a sign of a curious intellect but inspires nothing but neglect in his parents.  One night, the wardrobe in his bedroom is shattered by a horse-bound knight who bursts through it and gallops down a forest road that has suddenly appeared—clearly something is amiss in the space-time continuum!  The next night, Kevin wants to go to bed early, but instead of a knight-errant, he's visited by a crush of six thieving "little people." They're demoted employees of The Supreme Being (voiced by Tony Jay, but will appear later as a doddering Ralph Richardson)—seems their previous job of designing trees and bushes was sub-par and they're now tasked with fixing rends in the fabric of space-time.  But, being particularly (how should we say?) "entrepreneurial" they've seen that their map of black holes can take them to other Earth-eras, from which they can pillage whatever they can carry in a necessarily brief time.  "Necessarily" because they're being pursued by extremes of Good and Evil (aren't we all?), with TSB wanting his map back and the personification of Evil (David Warner, clearly relishing the role) coveting the map, so that he can fix TSB's mistakes and make the Universe more to his liking.

Gilliam's film then hops and darts and falls into an episodic structure, where the diminutive fugitives "crash" various eras, including Sherwood Forest in the era of Robin Hood (John Cleese, doing a hilarious version of Prince Charles), a campaign of Napoleon Bonaparte's (a nearly incomprehensible Ian Holm), who is obsessed with puppet shows (because they're smaller than him), the HMS Titanic (served "neat"), and, to Kevin's delight, Ancient Greece, where he befriends King Agamemnon (Sean Connery*), who is first seen battling a Minotaur

Most of it works and works hilariously, even when Gilliam veers into the surreal...and the budgetarily spare.  Still, the low-tech miracles Guillam pulls off with limited resources (5 mil' financed by George Harrison's Handmade Films) are awe-inspiring, not only for their realization on film, but also for the sheer visual splendor—and squalor—Gilliam's considerable imagination envisioned (and still does).  It's an amazing spectacle, and if the film stutters a bit pace-wise (especially during the Napoleon segment), the delights to the eye tend to gloss over any story-telling problems.  Gilliam's eye would become bolder and his subject matter richer, but Time Bandits was the transition-point between a sketch-comedian/animator and a true film-maker and visionary.

What all the fuss is about

* The script read: "The warrior took off his helmet, revealing someone that looks exactly like Sean Connery, or an actor of equal but cheaper stature." Gilliam was shocked that not only had Connery read the script, he wanted the part, and even suggested a disconcerting cameo at the end.

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