Your parents don’t care about you. They’re glued to their television, eyes suckered to the hypnotic hum of game show programming. They have more love for their latest household acquisitions than any fingerpainting abomination you attempted in kindergarten. You’re already old news, and you represent their greatest mistake in a long lifetime of error. Get out. Get out now and live your life.
That’s what Time Bandits taught me at a ripe young age when Star Wars was my panacea, and I couldn’t imagine a life apart from the parental bosses that regulated my eating, my sleeping, and every other waking thought. Terry Gilliam‘s third feature is a hard slap to a child’s imagination. Packed with a lot of the same mythological story beats found in George Lucas’ sci-fi fable but layered with a nasty reality that promises death as much as it does adventure. You can’t pull the sword from the stone and not expect a whole heap of trouble to follow you from that point forward. Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey is a treacherous path. Evil traces your footsteps and will stomp you out if your heart is not true.
Time Bandits was a seminal film experience for myself. The film has all the hallmarks of the usual kid adventure, but it positions the hero’s parents as a threat on par with dark forces like Darth Vader and the Ko-Dan Armada. Eleven-year-old Kevin (Craig Warnock) is a ghost within his home. His parents are too bothered with consumption and proving their worth as successful champions of the 1980s. He can’t sleep at night. Noises from his dresser keep him awake. One night the rattling explodes. A knight on horseback charges from the cabinet, lunges out his bedroom window and rides off into the forest. Um – wut?
The next evening, Kevin is prepared. He packs his satchel with goodies, loads his Polaroid camera, and awaits the arrival of another shining defender. Instead, a group of six dwarves climbs out from the wardrobe. These bandits have stolen a map to the space-time-continuum from the Supreme Being and are using it to get rich quick. With the diety in pursuit, Kevin follows the bandits through a gateway that lands them in Italy and into the clutches of a self-loathing Napolean (Ian Holm).
Gilliam gives a tour through history and mythology that is 10 times more exciting and 20 times more engaging than any storybook lesson your elementary teacher/high school teacher/college professor ever attempted. The writer/director brushes the dust from the bones of history and re-animates the corpses that are all too often imprisoned within textbooks. From Napolean, we meet the dimwitted Robin Hood (John Cleese) and the magnificently brave Agamemnon (Sean Connery) then board the doomed deck of the HMS Titanic.
The film is a rollicking adventure, but genuine danger sees death greeting our heroes. Kevin escapes the drudgery of his home life, but his reward might equal a finality that rarely, if ever, is contemplated by a child. As a young viewer, I feared for Kevin in a way that I never worried for Luke Skywalker or The Last Starfighter‘s Alex. If moms and dads could be loathsome, then kids could die. Terry Gilliam refuses to coddle his audience.
We have word from The Hollywood Reporter that Taika Waititi has signed on to help develop a Time Bandits series for Apple’s new streaming service. Before the director of Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Boy came aboard, I had one of those mental spasms you get at the very thought of “remake.” However, Waititi is a proven filmmaker that delights in putting children in harm’s way where warranted. The new Kevin and his cohorts will have to watch their backs, and opening the story up to the serialized format allows more space for excursions into Sherwood Forest and ancient Mesopotamia.
Similar to how Gilliam cast pals Cleese and Michael Palin into key roles, Waititi should creep back into his filmography for supporting players. Imagine a Tessa Thompson Cleopatra or a Sam Neill Supreme Being? No brainer, right? With history and myth as their guide, a successful Time Bandits series could reign on a streaming service for years and be the first step in Apple’s challenge to the subscription market.
Whatever the case, Time Bandits is waiting for you to visit/revisit it as soon as possible. The film respects its characters, its audience, and its drama. Whimsy and death hold hands there. Terror and comedy are best buds. Gilliam runs the gamut, and the world would be better off with more entertainments following suit. Go get that Criterion Blu-ray, folks.