Saturday, September 29, 2012

Time Bandits

In my review of Amelie, I half-jokingly said that movie was an amalgam of the sensibilities of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and a French Terry Gilliam. With Time Bandits (1981), we get to see what the actual Terry Gilliam would have done with Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. One of Gilliam's earliest works, Time Bandits is a time-traveling adventure story that already illustrates Gilliam's (the American member of Monty Python) unique visual sensibilities, anarchic yet whimsical sense of humor, and his subversive streak.

Kevin (Craig Warnock) is a bright young boy neglected by his technology-obsessed parents when one night his reality literally comes crashing down when a group of time-traveling dwarfs stumble out of his bedroom closet and take him on a trip to various locales throughout  history to steal treasure. All the while, they are pursued by their boss, the Supreme Being, for stealing his map that shows all the locations of different time holes through which they can travel to anywhere in the universe. But they don't realize their every movement is being tracked by the Evil One (David Warner), an evil genius who desires the map so he can escape his prison, the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, and take over the world.

Throughout their journeys, Kevin and the dwarfs (that sounds like a band name) run into a number of prominent historical figures played by well-known actors in essentially extended walk-ons: Ian Holm as Napoleon, John Cleese as Robin Hood, and Sean Connery as King Agamemnon. Michael Palin (who co-wrote the script with Gilliam) and Shelley Duvall show up twice as a pair of foppish twits, once to be robbed by the Merry Men and later to be passengers on the Titanic.  Gilliam takes merciless joy in sending up these figures: as the city burns around, Napoleon laughs at a puppet show in which the "little things hit each other" and then foolishly appoints the dwarfs his new generals. As Robin Hood, Cleese is in Sir Lancelot mode, utterly daft; as he hands out trinkets to the poor, one of his men punches each recipient. "Is that really necessary?" Robin asks, to which his cohort replies, "Afraid so, sir." Agamemnon is probably the most dignified, and Connery plays with him authority and nobility, but he too is bamboozled by the robbers.

Gilliam also works in a number of purely fantasy elements. At one point, Kevin and the dwarfs commandeer a sailing ship and wind up on the head of a giant. The ship itself is owned by Winston the Ogre (Peter Vaughn) and his wife (Katherine Helmond, who is not made up to look like a monster), and the matter-of-factly manner in which they talk about cooking our heroes while Winston complains about his bad back is quite funny. Also very good is Warner, who certainly carries a fair amount of menace and threat. He's not a frothing-at-the-mouth, over-the-top sorcerer one would expect, but rather, he's calm and nonchalant, giving  statements to his minions like, "Dear Benson, you are so mercifully free of the ravages of intelligence," and "Suddenly, I feel very, very good ... It'll pass."

What separates Time Bandits from the likes of Bill and Ted is the sense of wonder Gilliam conjures up. Unlike the dunderheaded duo, Kevin is curious and amazed by his surroundings, and we see he likes to read and document what he encounters, and unlike plenty of other child-centered movies, he's not not an obnoxiously cute kid. Gilliam includes several awe-inspiring shots, particularly in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, visualized a dark maze with hanging cages and some rather freaky-looking hooded figures.  And of course, it wouldn't be a Gilliam film without scenes of wanton destruction.

Time Bandits is a fun, whimsical adventure movie with moments of darkness. The plot is mostly episodic, and there's no real arc to speak of, but it's great fun and wonderfully visualized.

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