My DVD of Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits trumpets on its cover, rather poignantly, the following critical endorsement: "*** - Roger Ebert." While I'm glad Mr. Ebert -- a hero of mine and my single most valued guide through the world and history of cinema -- liked the movie, it saddens me a bit that so magical, imaginative, and inventive a film must brag about receiving a three-star rating that's been bestowed on so many vastly inferior movies. Wasn't there something more superlative they could have found to bedeck the box?
I think the reason Time Bandits has always connected so deeply with me is that it treats properly of two subjects very important to a certain type of introspective, bookish, daydreaming child -- bedrooms and maps. In my adolescence, my bedroom -- after I'd gotten one of my own, having had to share with an older brother in younger years -- was a sanctuary where I spent many an hour poring over fantasy and science-fiction novels, scribbling poorly-drawn homemade comics, and letting loose the weak steeds of my nascent imagination in whatever directions they cared to gallop. Few items triggered my young fancy as powerfully as maps -- the sort you so often seen at the front of fantasy literature, depicting nonexistent worlds, rivers, continents, mountain ranges, cities with funny names. The ones I liked best had archaic artifacts around the edges and corners -- puff-cheeked faces blowing the winds, sea serpents coiled in the waters, sketches of strange races and creatures found in far-flung domains. The prototype can be found in J.R.R. Tolkien's hand-drawn map at the front of The Hobbit.
In Time Bandits, the adventure begins in the bedroom of a little boy that just happens to be a focal point for a dimensional doorway to infinite eras in history and legend -- a fact that the hero, young Kevin, quickly discovers when a medieval knight comes bursting out of his wardrobe and into a forest just beyond the suddenly-nonexistent wall. This is an obvious metaphor for youthful imagination, and it's been seen before -- most notably in the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis, where a wardrobe similarly becomes a gateway to a magical world, and in The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy walks out of her room into Munchkinland (and into color cinema, in the immortal 1939 MGM film adaptation). Rather casually, Gilliam's film closes the story with a conventional "it was only a dream" explanation -- then immediately subverts it with a series of surreal and even mean-spirited twists in the film's final moments. All of this is beside the point -- Time Bandits is too whimsical, too fluid, too married to the incoherent dreamlike logic of childish imagination, for the question of "is it all real?" to have any major relevance to the story's impact.
As for maps, Time Bandits has a doozy -- the film's Macguffin is a map of all the "holes" in reality, through which one may slip from one historical era to the next, and which has been stolen by a band of enterprising would-be-thieves led by the irrepressibly charming David Rappaport. As, again, with Oz, the film relies on little people to convey the idea of strangeness, Otherness, and magic. This was a cinematic cliche long before Gilliam employed it, and one of my favorite moments in movies is Peter Dinklage's exasperated complaint to Steve Buscemi's indie-film director in Living In Oblivion that not every dream sequence needs to have a goddamn dwarf in it. Still, in the case of Time Bandits, the cliche is redeemed by the sheer quality of the diminutive cast. Rappaport is impossible not to like in everything he ever did (including his lovely guest-star turns in L.A. Law), and a small slice of me died on the day I learned he had committed suicide; but the other Bandits are similarly engaging, particularly Jack Purvis as the fiercely loyal, fiery-tempered Wally, and Mike Edmonds as the not-too-bright Og, whose mind-controlled monologue about "The Most Fabulous Object In the World" is one of the movie's many highlights.
The reveal of what precisely that Object is -- and how it ties back into the soulless world of crass consumerism that has turned Kevin's parents into TV-enslaved Pod People, a fate he desperately longs to escape -- is one of Time Bandits's satirical masterstrokes, unveiled against the backdrop of a third act whose setting (the appropriately-named Fortress of Ultimate Darkness) remains one of the triumphs of fantasy film production design. In such sequences, Gilliam moves so fluently, so confidently, among adventure, farce, horror, and satire, that you're compelled into admiration. At its best, the film successfully combines the FX-heavy overkill of the post-Star Wars era with the anarchic British wit that defined Monty Python, of which group Gilliam is of course an alumnus. And if there are occasional missteps along the way -- such as some of the more broadly-comic depictions of historical eras, including a tiresome running gag involving two perpetually-star-crossed lovers played by Michael Palin and Shelly Duvall -- they're easy to forgive.
If there's a bit of stunt casting in having Sean Connery turn up as King Agamemnon, he presides nevertheless over one of the film's most enchanting sequences -- a haunting, beautiful, decidedly un-comical depiction of mythical Greece that, we quickly understand, is the place where Kevin feels most at home, and where perhaps he should have been allowed to spend the rest of his life. The depiction of Kevin, however, is unsentimental; as played by Craig Warnock, he's likable and well-meaning enough, but also inordinately fascinated with blood and gore, and clearly thinks that the Trojan War must have been a ripping good time for all involved. If Warnock's performance isn't quite up to the level of Henry Thomas in the following year's E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, it's not so very far off.
Of all the depictions of God, or the divine, or transcendent power that I've seen in movies, none pleases me more than the deliciously Deus Ex Machina turn by Ralph Richardson in Time Bandits's finale. Personifying a certain type of Professorial British Authority -- in whose presence one instantly feels compelled to behave like a sheepish child -- Richardson lovingly clips off some of the screenplay's best lines, and leaves us feeling that, all in all, the universe could be in worse hands than this stern old codger. If I should ever meet my Maker -- if (as I confess I disbelieve) there is any Maker for me to meet -- I'll be more than a little relieved if it turns out to be something like Richardson's irritable deity. Praise too is due to David Warner (perhaps the most typecast villain-actor in cinema since the Golden Age trio of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Peter Lorre) who plays the personification of Evil, and who takes evident pleasure in simultaneously contributing to, and skewering, his onscreen persona here.
Gilliam, who has had one of the really fascinating, problematic, up-and-down careers in film directing, went on to bigger if not necessarily better things in subsequent years. 1985's Brazil -- which combines Orwellian dystopia with a critique of mindless bureaucracy -- is considered by many his masterpiece, and he did good work afterwards, from the unwieldy-yet-dazzling Adventures of Baron Munchausen to the grim Twelve Monkeys. But Time Bandits is the one film of Gilliam's that I truly love.