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Time Bandits: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

Time Bandits (1981) US movie poster Time Bandits

US Theatrical Release: November 6, 1981 / Running Time: 116 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated (US Theatrical Cut: PG)

Director: Terry Gilliam / Writers: Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam

Cast: John Cleese (Robin Hood), Sean Connery (King Agamemnon/Fireman), Shelley Duvall (Dame Pansy/Pansy), Katherine Helmond (Mrs. Ogre), Ian Holm (Napoleon), Michael Palin (Vincent), Ralph Richardson (Supreme Being), Peter Vaughan (Winston the Ogre), David Warner (Evil), David Rappaport (Randall), Kenny Baker (Fidgit), Malcolm Dixon (Strutter), Mike Edmonds (Og), Jack Purvis (Wally), Tiny Ross (Vermin), Craig Warnock (Kevin), David Daker (Kevin's Father), Sheila Fearn (Kevin's Mother), Jim Broadbent (Compere), John Young (Reginald), Myrtle Devenish (Beryl), Tony Jay (voice of Supreme Being)

Buy Time Bandits: The Criterion Collection from Amazon.com: Blu-ray DVD

Terry Gilliam, Monty Python's lone Yank, emerged from that British comedy troupe as a filmmaker to be taken seriously. With Terry Jones, Gilliam co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the group's revered true feature debut. While Jones alone would helm two subsequent Python films,
Gilliam was making a name for himself outside of Python. He made his solo directorial debut on 1977's Jabberwocky. Then, Gilliam and fellow Pythoner/Jabberwocky's leading man Michael Palin teamed up to write Time Bandits (1981), a big, ambitious time-traveling adventure that Gilliam alone produced and directed.

This British film opens with a family of three. While his parents watch TV on plastic-covered couches barely listening to one another, eleven-year-old Kevin (Craig Warnock) reads history books. At night, Kevin is startled by the sight of a knight on horseback who bursts through his wardrobe and rides off. It's just a dream. Or is it? Next, the wardrobe is exited by six little people (David Rappaport, Kenny "R2-D2" Baker, Malcolm Dixon, Mike Edmonds, Jack Purvis, and Tiny Ross). Describing themselves as international criminals, these dwarves have been using a map to journey to different eras and help themselves to priceless ancient artifacts. The map belongs to "the Supreme Being" (Ralph Richardson), whose head appears to them demanding they return it.

The Time Bandits take group photo with stolen treasures and the map they use to travel through time.

Instead, the dwarves and Kevin, wielding his Polaroid camera, travel to the Napoleonic wars, where Napoleon (Ian Holm) is defensive about his height to the point of obsession. Amused by little hand puppets but not performers of average height, Napoleon takes a liking to the bandits after they take the stage and treat him to a pratfall-laden performance of "Me and My Shadow." When Napoleon sleeps, they take off with his rings and his golden right hand.

The seven plunderers/time travelers next pop up in the Middle Ages, where Robin Hood (an amusing John Cleese) and his Merry Men expect them to turn over their bag of spoils (holding the Mona Lisa, gold chalices and the like) to the poor. Kevin gets separated from the others, winding up in Ancient Greece, where he inadvertently saves the life of a kind king (Sean Connery) in a barbaric fight to the death. Adopted by the king, Kevin thinks he's found a good home and is reluctant to reunite with the dwarves when they turn up for a show.

Meanwhile, in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, the tech-savvy Evil One (David Warner) who with a wave of the hand blows up (or turns into an animal) anyone who questions him, tries to lure the bandits and their map into his powerful clutches.

Robin Hood (John Cleese) greets the Time Bandits like a well-intentioned but clueless royal. Curly-haired Greek king Agamemnon (Sean Connery) is prepared to adopt Kevin (Craig Warnock), to his gratitude.

Time Bandits is unmistakably a Terry Gilliam film. Though it is one of his earliest works, this fantasy shows the wit, whimsy, and imagination that define him as a filmmaker. Recent years have changed Gilliam's reputation from a visionary to a commercially perilous gamble. In this century, he has only seen four films to completion as director: two that perished in limited release (most recently, The Zero Theorem), one that required creative casting after its production was derailed by the death of Heath Ledger (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus), and one widely released film trashed by critics and largely, wisely avoided by the public (The Brothers Grimm).

The film business is said to have a short memory, which might explain why Gilliam's acclaimed work in the 20th century, including Brazil, The Fisher King, and Twelve Monkeys, has somewhat been forgotten. Gilliam's situation doesn't seem all that far from Francis Ford Coppola's, whose unpredictable, potentially costly ambition comes to mind more quickly today than his brilliant achievements in the 1970s. These accomplished filmmakers and others like them continue to work but independently on the fringes of the industry with help from foreign financing. Gilliam at least benefits from the respect that in-demand actors give him:
when Ledger died, his unfilmed scenes were performed by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. But no amount of star power is enough to make up for habitual underperformance, something every Gilliam film since 12 Monkeys can be accused of domestically. It's not as if he has been making bad movies lately; Grimm is almost impossible to defend, but the few others I've seen have their merits. It's just that his vision is often far too grand for the seven-figure budget he'd need to ensure profitability.

Impressively, Time Bandits was made for only $5 million, which inflation only adjusts to around $14 million today. It feels much bigger than that, though, with its sense of adventure, grand score, and vast locations and sets. The film is full of the kind of production design that's rarely done practically nowadays. Gilliam, who got his start as Monty Python's resident animator, has adapted, his recent works embracing digital visual effects gracefully. But his distinct brand of fantasy seems more conducive to charming, immediate art direction (e.g. using dolls of characters on at least one scene here) than to post-production computer work. That may simply be a product of the timing of his emergence and may unfairly limit his relevance in this current age of VFX and CGI ubiquity, but, unlike contemporaries Spielberg, Scorsese, and Ridley Scott, Gilliam has shown little interest in evolving and even less in conforming.

Napoleon (Ian Holm) has very narrow entertainment tastes. If it doesn't involve tiny people, he's not interested. Winston the Ogre (Peter Vaughan) isn't keen on Kevin's chiropractic advice.

After an exhilarating start, Time Bandits does start to lose its luster, as it settles into an episodic design. Even as the excitement begins to wear thin, the film remains easy to appreciate as a type of cinema that doesn't exist now and rarely existed then. The movies closest in spirit to this one that I've seen would be The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, the two fantasy films Jim Henson directed in the early 1980s, and Disney's Return to Oz. Actually, Time Bandits does seem to deliberately evoke the original Wizard of Oz in some strange way, with its fever dream narrative and parallel bookends. Make Dorothy a boy and the Munchkins her focal companions, and you get something like this, although with an ending as bizarre and unheartwarming as anything you'd find in what could be classifiable as a family film.

I'm reluctant to call Time Bandits a family film. It obviously earned a PG rating and it might even do so today, at a time when that's as tame a rating as is given out with any frequency. But it's trippy, surreal, and strange, much like Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. You'll find the director's satire of commercialism that partly fuels his follow-up Brazil. You'll also find cast members in common, like Holm and Katherine Helmond, who plays the fair wife of an ogre in the time of legends (which comes in between a stop on the Titanic and a sea giant sighting).

Criterion presents the film in its original 116-minute European cut, which was trimmed to 110 minutes for American release. The length does seem a factor for the film's saggy middle, but there are problems beyond pacing, like the fact that you never get to know the dwarves individually to the extent you should.

Nearly twenty years since joining the Criterion Collection on laserdisc, Time Bandits hangs onto its 1999 DVD's low spine number of 37 in a new two-disc DVD and the single-disc Blu-ray reviewed here, both of which the boutique label releases today.

Time Bandits: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.85:1 Widescreen
2.0 LPCM Stereo (English)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: December 9, 2014
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Clear Keepcase in Lenticular Cardboard Slipcover
Also available as 2-Disc DVD ($29.95 SRP)
Previously released as Criterion Collection DVD (March 30, 1999) and by Image Entertainment on DVD (February 1, 2011) and Blu-ray (August 24, 2010)


Time Bandits boasts excellent picture quality on Blu-ray and not only because an early '80s European production is the kind of movie you expect to be plagued by issues. The pristine, vibrant 1.85:1 element dazzles, while exhibiting nothing worse than brief minor grain. Sound is offered exclusively in 2.0 LPCM stereo and it is a little strange, like echoed mono. Still, it has vitality and keeps dialogue crisp and audible.

Production designer Milly Burns a scrapbook and memories from her first film in the brand new "Creating the Worlds of 'Time Bandits.'" Terry Gilliam discusses everything from Minnesota to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in this extended 1998 Midnight Sun Festival interview.


The Blu-ray's extras begin with an audio commentary, recorded for laserdisc in 1997, by Terry Gilliam, co-writer/actor Michael Palin, and actors John Cleese, David Warner, and Craig Warnock. They are all recorded separately, which isn't ideal, but whoever at Criterion edited it did an excellent job of picking the best bits and allowing them to complement one another.
Cleese and Warner only pop in briefly to talk over their scenes, but Gilliam appropriately leads the way, voicing his desire to make something that was fun but not cute and never talked down to children. We also get a good amount of former child actor Warnock reflecting on his one and only movie. Overall, this is a very good and enthusiastic track, the type we rarely encounter these days, with the format having grown somewhat stale.

On the video side, where everything is encoded in HD, we start with "Creating the Worlds of Time Bandits" (23:24), a new featurette written and narrated by David Morgan which features new on-camera interviews of costume designer James Acheson and production designer Milly Burns discussing their contributions to the film's visuals and characters. Clips from the film are complemented by images of storyboards, props, print marketing and behind-the-scenes photos. It's as solid a making-of retrospective you can expect with such limited crew and non-existent cast participation.

"Terry Gilliam and Peter Von Bagh" (1:19:39) preserves the director's panel at the 1998 Midnight Sun Festival in Finland. Initially wearing a ridiculous fur coat, he talks about his "imagemaking" influences, growing up in Minnesota, his experiences with Monty Python and as a director, making "a Terry Gilliam film" and something different, working with Robin Williams, depicting the future, and getting different things from established stars. It's very long, visually dull, and largely not directly related to Time Bandits (I'm guessing Criterion ran out of room on Fear and Loathing), but full of good information nonetheless.

Shelley Duvall gives Tom Snyder's interviewing skills one thumb up in this 1981 clip from NBC's "Tomorrow." This behind-the-scenes still shows just another day on a Terry Gilliam movie.

Next, we get a 1981 clip of Shelley Duvall on NBC's "Tomorrow" (8:46), in which the actress discusses with clearly underprepared host Tom Snyder her minor roles in what they both call The Time Bandits, her career in general, and her discovery by Robert Altman while studying to be a scientist. Too bad Criterion couldn't have caught up with Duvall, who hasn't been heard from in years and who appears in three of the label's releases (all three of which have been reviewed on this site).

A stills gallery lets you navigate through 24 behind-the-scenes images from production.

Time Bandits' trailer, which downplays the dwarves for reasons Gilliam's feature commentary explains, offers voiceover guy fun and this nifty tagline. The Time Bandits' map makes for an appropriate Blu-ray menu image.

Finally, we get Time Bandits' theatrical trailer (3:10), a bold, clever promo ahead of its time,
which an unseen trailer narrator slogs through with misreads and references to other recent films.

The menu attaches sounds from the movie to a static image of the all-important map. As always, Criterion authors the disc to resume playback of everything and also to let you set bookmarks on the film.

In what is a first for Criterion from what I've seen, Time Bandits' clear keepcase is topped by a lenticular-faced slipcover, repeating the artwork below. Joining the disc, of course, is one of the company's high quality booklets. Instead of the usual staple-bound affair, this one folds open to oh so perfectly display a meticulous reproduction of the bandits' map on one side. The back supplies the usual transfer information, acknowledgements, cast and crew credits, as well as "Guerilla Fantasy", a new essay by critic and author David Sterritt. It enjoyably celebrates Gilliam and the film for its theological bend and verbal and visual ingenuity.

Surrounded by idiots, the genius Evil (David Warner) finds it difficult to lure the Time Bandits to the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness.


Time Bandits is pretty typical for a 1980s Terry Gilliam movie and pretty unusual otherwise. This time-traveling adventure is funny, imaginative, trippy, and strange. The episodic premise is stretched a little thin and the proceedings are never as great and accessible as you'd like. Still, it's a good amount of fun and an experience decidedly different from your run of the mill fantasy cinema.

Criterion's Blu-ray is characteristically delightful, offering a dynamite restoration, a cornucopia of substantial, complementary bonus features, and even a replica of the bandits' map. While I'd recommend a viewing of the film first, this set is sure to please those already harboring an appreciation for it or other Gilliam fantasies.

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Related Reviews:
Directed by Terry Gilliam: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas The Brothers Grimm
New: Into the Woods Guardians of the Galaxy | John Cleese: Mr. Toad's Wild Ride The Great Muppet Caper
Sean Connery: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade The Anderson Tapes Darby O'Gill and the Little People
David Warner: Tron Titanic | Shelley Duvall: Popeye The Shining Nashville 3 Women Frankenweenie (1984)
1980s: Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure Voyagers! The Complete Series Return to Oz Labryinth The Watcher in the Woods
Gulliver's Travels Bedtime Stories Night at the Museum Mirror Mirror The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

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Reviewed December 9, 2014.

Text copyright 2014 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1981 HandMade Films and 2014 The Criterion Collection.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.