(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)
Time Bandits (1981)
Written by Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Oh, Terry Gilliam, what happened to you? The only American member of highly influential 1970s British comedy troupe Monty Python, Gilliam first brought attention to himself through a series of cutting-edge animations done for the group's weekly television show, done during the height of England's countercultural age, and eventually going on to direct their most commercially successful and well-remembered movie, 1975's Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Where Gilliam really broke out as an artist, however, was in the early 1980s when he finally struck out on his own, creating such mind-tripping masterpieces as 1985's Brazil, which I'm positive will eventually be known as one of the most important films of the late 20th century. Ah, but then in the '90s, things started changing for Gilliam; a series of expensive and high-profile failed productions ended up haunting him, combined with such actual finished projects as 1991's The Fisher King and 1995's Twelve Monkeys that caused a critical split among existing fans, even as they became the biggest mainstream commercial hits of his career.
And that sadly leaves us to where we are now -- with Gilliam recently known for a series of expensive flops (The Brothers Grimm, Tideland and others), unable to get the projects financed and finished that seem better matches for him, with a reputation now more tarnished than in his '80s days as a film goldenboy. Which again leads us back to the question posed at the beginning of today's essay -- what exactly happened? Did Gilliam's vision grow too grandiose, or did the studio system surrounding him change too profoundly? Has it been a simple run of bad luck for Gilliam lately, or has he officially and permanently moved past his creative apex as a filmmaker? And perhaps most importantly, are we as audience members remembering his older films with too much nostalgic fondness, or are they really as better than the newer ones as we recollect?
That's what led me to renting out Gilliam's 1981 classic Time Bandits recently, which for those who don't remember was his very first post-Python film, which meant that a lot was riding on it both financially and critically at the time. I myself was in my early teens when the film first came out and then played officially a zillion times on then-burgeoning cable television, so in many ways I was the perfect example of its original target audience; in fact, I remember watching it a zillion times when an early teen, and indeed still have many of its most famous lines memorized. ("That's what I like! Leetle theengs heeting eech otheer!") But is it because I was an early teen when I fell in love with Time Bandits that I now remember it with such fondness? Is it unfair of me to compare something like Gilliam's 1998 adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (much loved by some, don't forget) to my hazy nostalgic memories of childhood Gilliam? That's why I had Netflix send me a copy of Time Bandits, to tell you the truth, so I could try to watch the film for the first time with adult eyes, and see whether it's right of me to hold the movie in such high regard in my head.
Now for those who don't know, Gilliam is very much a fantastical filmmaker, with all his 14 movies having something or other to do with the subject; whether taking on the genre in a straightforward manner or ironically commenting on it in a postmodern way, almost every movie Gilliam has now been a part of has had something to do with monsters and heroes and the insane people who are aware of their secret existence. And indeed, this is the major idea at the core of Time Bandits as well, spelled out in a traditional fairytale way in the style of CS Lewis' Narnia series; the story of early-'80s suburban British kid Kevin, that is, whose swashbuckling fantasies don't nearly match the dreary cul-de-sac reality of his daily life. One night, though, first a knight in shining armor bursts through Kevin's wardrobe, followed by a group of dwarves who claim to be professional thieves, inadvertently dragging Kevin into the time-traveling adventure of which they are in the middle; because it turns out that these dwarves, see, are actually minor employees of God, who have recently stolen a map of His that conveniently points out all the secret holes found in the space/time continuum (including Kevin's wardrobe at certain rare times, which is how he gets pulled into the whole mess to begin with).
It's a pretty standard kid's adventure tale that follows, even if on the dark and subversive side where you also find Roald Dahl and Philip Pullman; the dwarf bandits are basically hopping from one chaotic moment in history to the next, sneaking around and stealing things in the midst of the anarchy, then hopping several hundred years forwards or back so that they won't be caught. This then allows Gilliam to rapidly progress from one historical era to the next without much exposition needed, and to instead jump straight into witty revisionist takes on famous periods of history; to portray Robin Hood, for example (played here by fellow Python alum John Cleese) as a clueless pretty boy, surrounded by the most vile and disgusting "merry men" you'll ever meet. Now add a snotty British personification of Evil (played by the always brilliant David Warner), disgusted with a Supreme Being that would obsess on such niceties as 43 species of parrots ("I would have started with lasers, eight o'clock, Day One!"), determined to steal the map from the dwarves so as to unmake the very universe itself, and you've got yourself one great little fantastical tale indeed.
And in fact this is one of the first things I realized, watching Time Bandits literally for the first time since I was 18 or 19 (or twenty years ago, in other words); that it's not just my faulty nostalgic memory, that this really is an endlessly inventive and witty and rewarding movie. That's part of what made Gilliam so well-loved during his '70s and '80s heyday, after all, was the way he would visually pack his projects with so much lovingly eccentric detail; I mean, just look at an underrated masterpiece like 1988's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen as a good example, which no matter what you think of still stands as one of the most visually dense movies ever made. Time Bandits literally takes multiple viewings in order to catch all the inventive things happening on the screen, which of course is half of why it became a cult film to begin with; then add the other half, the endlessly funny and smart script by Gilliam and yet another Python alum, Michael Palin.
This is what I feel is missing from such bigger yet simpler projects like The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys, and is why I haven't even bothered getting around to watching Tideland and The Brothers Grimm; they all seem to lack that ultra-sharp, ultra-intelligent humor on display in the first half-dozen projects of Gilliam's career, the jokes so unexpected and delivered so flawlessly that you can literally hear them a hundred times and still not get sick of them. ("The problem, Pansy! It's started again! I must have fruit!") This is always what was so great about Gilliam as a filmmaker; not just his masterful touch over complicated visuals and effects, but also combining it with truly challenging and brilliant writing, something that has slipped a little more with each project even as major studios and larger budgets have allowed the visual element to get better and better with each film. It's true that Gilliam's movies are looking awfully slick by now, the work of a real visual master at the top of his form; too bad, then, that they are sincerely less thoughtful and entertaining than the low-budget ones of the beginning of his career.
So when all is said and done, I guess Gilliam really is to blame after all; now that I've watched Time Bandits as an adult, I really can confirm that it's infinitely smarter and better-made than his more recent films, and can also confirm such a thing about other '80s films like Brazil which I've already seen plenty of times as an adult. In this case, I'm sadly forced to deduce that age and an increasing mellowness about the world is affecting Terry Gilliam as a filmmaker, in a way I think for the worse, and that it's no surprise that each subsequent film of his becomes a little less successful. It's an infinitely interesting thing about the arts, I think, is watching the various ways an artist's career rises and falls, and in wondering what particular things happening in life are the ones to most influence that. In any case, though, I definitely encourage you to pick up Time Bandits soon if you never have; and especially all you parents out there, sick of the corporate crappiness of contemporary Hollywood and desperately seeking films you can show your kids without feeling dirty.
Out of 10:
--Craig Warnock, the boy who played Kevin, didn't formally try out for the part; his brother was actually the one who did, with Craig being forced by his parents to tag along to the audition. Gilliam had been specifically seeking a shy bookish child who would be more a witness to the time-traveling proceedings than a participant; it's how Craig ended up getting chosen without auditioning.
--In the original script, the role of of King Agamemnon was originally described as being played by "a Sean Connery type, but someone we can actually afford." To Gilliam's surprise, Connery himself took a strong interest in the script, and indeed ended up playing the part.
--In the Time of Legends, the ogre's wife had originally been written as an ogress herself; actor Katherine Helmond, however, suggested to Gilliam that it would be funnier to have her appear as a normal peasant housewife, a suggestion Gilliam followed.
--Just about every scene of the movie is filmed from a child's perspective, or in other words with the camera just a few feet above the ground and pointed upwards; it's never explicitly mentioned, but does add a great subtle effect to the entire thing.
--And for those who missed it, all the weapons and soldiers who appear in the final battle scene are replicas of toys found in Kevin's bedroom at the very beginning of the movie. In fact, if you notice closely, many parts of the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness appear to be made out of giant black Lego blocks.
Best viewed: with people who haven't seen it before, so that you don't have to turn to them every 30 seconds and keep screaming, "Shut up, will you shut up, will you PLEASE JUST SHUT UP ALREADY?"
Next on my queue list: Ran, the 1985 big-budget saga by Asian movie-master Akira Kurosawa, retelling the story of King Lear through the filter of feudal Japan's samurai society.