Time Bandits: It’s Never Done That Before

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I guess we’re all sharing our feelings about Time Bandits, which I watched this weekend for the first time in, what, 25 years? I first saw it when I was 12, and I loved it. I loved it like Vincent loves Pansy.

Lemme tell you, it’s not easy to watch it now.

It’s not just the special effects, which I remember as being mindblowing, but now you can see that the Supreme Being is animated at about one frame every 8 seconds or so (this movie, which was originally made for I think $5 million, is weeping for a Special Edition treatment). And it’s not just the story, which I’d forgotten makes no sense. I mean, disjointedness is built into the premise — time-traveling little people plus boy jump through history committing crimes — but now it just feels random. They go to the Napoleonic wars because somebody wanted to do a joke about Napoleon being short. They go to medieval England for a joke about Robin Hood (at the time it was actually sort of disturbing for me to see John Cleese in a non-Monty Python context). They go to — where is that? Ancient Greece? Except they’re in the desert, and everybody but Sean Connery is black? And don’t get me started on the Time of Legends. I thought this stuff was confusing because I was a kid, and you never know what’s going on when you’re a kid. Now I’m just not sure how well it hangs together.

But I think I have the hardest time with how cruel the movie is. The bandits are always fighting. Everybody’s always damp and uncomfortable and filthy. People are always getting killed. On the way to rob Napoleon they watch an endless series of people being executed by firing squad — you keep waiting for the punchline, but there isn’t one. Then Napoleon watches a puppet show till even the puppeteer gets shot and dies. When they walk into Robin Hood’s camp, there’s a gag where somebody gets his arm ripped off in an arm-wrestling contest. And on and on. And Gilliam is always showing you unhappy couples: Kevin’s parents, the ogre couple, Pansy and Vincent, Agamemnon and his queen [presumably that’s Clytemnestra, who will eventually kill him per Aeschylus], even the little pig-couple that the giant steps on. When I was a kid this stuff was sometimes funny but mostly baffling. Now it’s kinda relentless and depressing. I don’t know, maybe I’m just a weak man who can’t deal with dark things.

But I can remember why this movie had such an overpowering effect on me, to the point where I still know virtually every frame of it by heart. Partly it’s the amazing visual richness, because duh, it’s directed by Terry Gilliam. It’s just so exciting to look at the damn thing. Partly it’s that appealing Oedipal arc: forget your real parents, your new dad is a minotaur-slaying king played by Sean Connery! That’s catnip to a newly pubescent dork. Partly it’s the basic naughtiness of the premise: God is just some dude, and he has dwarves who work for him who rip him off.

But mostly it’s the Narnian thing: your boring, depressing world isn’t the real world, this is. And who knows, at any minute Randall and his crew could come for you. That was what did it for me. When you’re 12 Star Wars is just a movie that you love. Time Bandits is a movie that’s actually about you.

p.s. thanks to commenter Zharkov for this link: http://www.metropolisgrafix.com/html/TB.html. Holy crap. This may be the Most Fabulous Object in the Universe.