Time Bandits

(1981) *** 1/2 Pg
117 min. Avco Embassy Pictures. Directors: Terry Gilliam, Julian Doyle. Cast: John Cleese, Sean Connery, Shelley Duvall, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm.

/content/films/3835/1.jpgA smart and imaginative fantasy with appeal for the whole family is always cause for celebration, and few filmmakers have a more fertile imagination than former Monty Python's Flying Circus animatorTerry Gilliam. With the child-friendly adventure Time Bandits, Gilliam made strides with his narrative sophistication and banked a hit big enough to enable him to make dream-project Brazil. In hindsight, Gilliam acknowledged the obsession that guided his storytelling in the '80s, grouping Time Bandits, Brazil (1985) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989) into a thematic trilogy exploring the role of imagination in, respectively, the lives of a child, a middle-aged man, and an old man.

Time Bandits is, indeed, vintage Gilliam, with unmistakeable themes like the chaos of human existence (often expressed through warfare) and the scrappy alternative, rising like a tenacious flower through the rubble, represented by personal passion (especially that of an artist or a lover). Co-scripted by Gilliam and fellow Python Michael Palin (who cameos wth Shelley Duvall), the slippery story of Time Bandits rivals Roald Dahl in its surrealism and satire. As if in answer to the relative gentility of C.S. Lewis, Gilliam initiates the adventure of young Kevin (Craig Warnock) when a knight on horseback bursts through a wardrobe and bounds over the boy's bed. This astonishment is made possible by a time hole, one of many flaws in the Supreme Being's deisgn of the universe. Add to that subversive concept the notion that the boy's excursion through a time hole (chased by the Supreme Being) is predicated by a disgust in the blinding conformity of modern-day capitalist consumption, and you get a children's film that may unsettle parents a great deal more than its conversative model, The Wizard of Oz.

Kevin escapes his bourgeois parents in the company of six dwarves who have stolen a map of space and time from their employer, The Supreme Being (voiced by Tony Jay, then embodied by Sir Ralph Richardson). The thieving Randall (David Rappaport), Fidgit (Kenny Baker), Strutter (Malcolm Dixon), Og (Mike Edmonds), Wally (Jack Purvis), and Vermin (Tiny Ross) deliver little from Kevin's thoughtless, consumptive Mom and Dad: bored by their workaday lives (designing trees and shrubs), the little guys put their energy into getting theirs. By contrast, Kevin's heroes Robin Hood (John Cleese) and Agamemnon (Sean Connery) care little for personal wealth: Cleese's posh, "jolly" Robin redistributes wealth to the poor, while Agamemnon won't let his spirit be mastered by the trappings of his kingdom: he lives in the moment. Kevin recognizes the "trap" "fabulous wealth and prizes" constitute from the favorite TV show of his parents, "Your Money or Your Life" (hosted by a slimily unctuous Jim Broadbent).

Kevin's adventure allows him to meet his heroes as time holes plunge him into the Middle Ages and ancient Mycenae, but it's not all fun and games. The dwarves also drag Kevin through Napoleon France, where the Emperor (ever-amusing Ian Holm) spends angry days and soused nights not enjoying his plenty; the Time of Legends, where Gilliam lets his creativity run riot with ogres (Peter Vaughan and Katherine Helmond) and such; and the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, where the tech-obsessed Evil One (David Warner) plots universal domination like Ming the Merciless without a house cleaner. As in his debut feature Jabberwocky, Gilliam sees a dirty, raggedy universe; you'll never catch him scrubbing the grime off history. Time Bandits alludes to influences as diverse as Through the Looking Glass and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but the style is pure Gilliam, with an emphasis on "handmade" practical effects and judicious use of wide angles when a subject needs to be especially grotesque (kudos, incidentally, to George Harrison and Denis O'Brien's Handmade Films for ultimately backing Gilliam's vision).

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1

Street date: 8/24/2010

Distributor: Image Entertainment

Sadly, Image Entertainment's domestic Blu-ray debut of Time Bandits is a disappointment. On the "pro" side, the image does show improvement over previous DVD releases, which in itself may be enough for fans to make the plunge (there's also a significant new bonus feature—more on that anon): color, for example, appears more accurate, and though the print is flecked withh dirt and dust, there's a bit more detail to what's always been a soft and grainy image. On the "con" side, this is a 1080i (interlaced) transfer, which is all but unheard of for a Blu-ray release of a feature film. Your mileage may vary: I screened the film on a PS3 (which doesn't excel at deinterlacing), and my machine chunked hard and loudly at times in playing the disc (playback also hung up a few times). The UK release is 1080p, boasts a much-higher bit rate, and has received higher marks for image quality from those who have seen both transfers. Image's presentation of a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is much more like it, maximizing the source material for a definitive home-theater rendering with considerable punch to it. (Unfortunately, the disc also lacks subtitles for the deaf and hearing-impaired.)

Time Bandits has been released in America at least twice before on DVD: first in a Criterion edition with an audio commentary by director Terry Gilliam, co-writer/actor Michael Palin, and actors John Cleese, David Warner, and Craig Warnock, as well as a "scrapbook" and trailer; and then in an Anchor Bay two-disc special edition with The Directors retrospective on Gilliam's career, an interview with Gilliam and Palin, and trailers. None of those extras have been licensed by Image for the Blu-ray release, but unlike the other three discs in Image's Handmade Films wave, Time Bandits sports a fresh bonus feature: a 2009 "Terry Gilliam Interview" (18:12, SD). Gilliam doesn't have anything particularly new to say about the film, but it's still a good and informative overview of the key points about the film's making and Gilliam's thoughts about the film. Also included is the "Trailer" (3:09, SD), a Python-esque deconstruction of a movie trailer, partly narrated by Palin.

The budget price of this release may make the plunge easier to take for die-hard Gilliam fans, and it certainly has its pluses. It's just a shame Image didn't spring for a better transfer.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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