Image Entertainment // 1981 // 117 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 23rd, 2010
All the dreams you've ever had...and not just the good ones.
"Come on then. Back to creation. We mustn't waste any more time. They'll think I've lost control again and put it all down to evolution."
Young Kevin (Craig Warnock) is a kid obsessed with the past in a world obsessed with the present. His parents constantly yearn for the newest gadgets and gizmos, but Kevin can often be found with his nose buried in a history book. One night, a band of Little People come crashing into Kevin's room, claiming to be on the run from mysterious figure known as the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson, Dragonslayer). However, the chase is taking place in an unusual manner: the fugitives are running through time, using a map that they stole from the Supreme Being. Suddenly, Kevin finds himself a part of this merry band, running through time and meeting such noteworthy figures as Napoleon (Ian Holm, Alien), Robin Hood (John Cleese, Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and King Agememnon (Sean Connery, Goldfinger).
For the entirety of the 1970s, Terry Gilliam was more or less just, "The American guy from Monty Python's Flying Circus." To be sure, he had established his distinct voice via his animated segments on that program, his contributions to the Python theatrical films and his slightly underwhelming film Jabberwocky, but it wasn't until Time Bandits that Gilliam really arrived. Though he was working with a modest $5 million budget, the film proved to be a big box office hit (such a success that it enabled Gilliam to make the massively expensive box office flops The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Brazil without ruining his career). Though the film isn't on par with the best of Gilliam's work (those aforementioned flops come to mind), it's a very entertaining adventure that essentially permits his splendid imagination to run amok.
As with many of Gilliam's films, Time Bandits takes an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to its material. The screen is constantly loaded (sometimes overloaded) with visual delights, typically lurching forward at a wild pace and attempting to bring us some wildly spectacular new delight. It doesn't always work, but when it does the film soars (not to mention that it's fun to watch Gilliam trying even when it doesn't work). When Kevin and his pals meet up with God himself during the film's final act, it seems like a perfectly natural choice: at that point, what else were they going to do?
In its way, Time Bandits plays like a early companion piece to his recent The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, another playful romp set against the backdrop of games being played by higher powers. In that film, The Devil is a carefree trickster played by Tom Waits. In this film, Old Scratch is a fuming, embittered megalomaniac played by David Warner (The Omen). There's nothing the Evil Genius (as he's billed in this film) wants more than to defeat the Supreme Being, but he needs the map in order to do so. So, Kevin and the gang find themselves caught in the middle of something vastly bigger than themselves, and by the time the third act arrives they're merely pawns being pushed around on a celestial chess board.
For my money, the film is at its best and boldest during that third act, particularly once Richardson shows up as the Supreme Being (though the scene beforehand with a group of rowdy cowboys attempting to lynch the devil is darkly entertaining). In a film filled with big stars, Richardson steals the show as an entertainingly grumpy God. "It's such a bother, having to appear like that," he says upon arriving in the room via a magnificent display of light. Delightfully, Richardson plays the Supreme Being as a no-nonsense businessman. Sure, he's had to kill lots of people and allow some terrible things to happen now and then, but he also invented some pleasant things. It's all in a day's work, you know? How perfect that he lets the Time Bandits return to their old jobs as his servants, "with a 19 percent pay cut."
Fun as the film is, it's certainly not fun to report that Time Bandits is arriving on Blu-ray with an extremely disappointing 1080i/1.78:1 transfer. The fact that it's interlaced is bad enough, but combined with the fact that the image is just messy and suffers from all sorts of scratches, flecks, flat colors, and soft imagery. This is particularly noteworthy when you examine the transfer in comparison to screen shots from the Region 2 Blu-ray from Optimum (which looks dramatically better in almost every way). The level of detail is respectable and flesh tones are warm and accurate, but this transfer is inexcusably weak overall. Audio is dramatically better, with boisterous clarity and nuance throughout. Dialogue is clean and clear, the diverse score has a good deal of strength, and Gilliam's typically busy sound design is quite immersive. The supplemental department is also a disappointment, dumping the documentaries and commentaries of previous DVD releases and offering merely an 18-minute interview with Gilliam and a trailer as substitutes.
As much as I enjoy Time Bandits, it has to be admitted that there are quite a few bits that don't really work so well. Sadly, most of these involve the big-name players in the film. Ian Holm's cartoonish Napoleon is fun, but John Cleese doesn't seem to know what to do with the role of an exceptionally friendly Robin Hood, while Sean Connery does little more than seem like a good sport in the role of King Agememnon. Meanwhile, Michael Palin (A Fish Called Wanda) and Shelley Duvall (The Shining) are only fitfully amusing as two lovers whose attempts at romance are repeatedly thwarted.
The film is fun and deserves to be seen, but should you pick up this Blu-ray release? While it looks marginally better than the DVD releases, the transfer is so disappointing that there's no way I can recommend an upgrade. The lame supplemental package seals the deal. If you have a region-free Blu-ray player, try hunting down the Optimum release.
The film is not guilty, but this very underwhelming Blu-ray release is.
Review content copyright © 2010 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080i)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 117 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated PG