“We were trying to come up with something that was intelligent enough for kids, but exciting enough for adults,” laughs writer Michael Palin midway through a lengthy interview with Terry Gilliam. And it’s fair to say that, with Time Bandits, they succeeded, this romping 1981 adventure classic being every bit as much a marauding sensual riot as it is a history-hopping conundrum. From the moment it comes screaming out of the blocks with its iconic, eye-popping wardrobe equestrianism sequence, Gilliam sneezes out the exotically lurid contents of his frazzled post-Python brain and leaves us to work out the wondrous mess.In a nutshell, a rogue squadron of six dwarves sweep downtrodden schoolboy Kevin (the fabulously smackable Craig Warnock) along on their time-travel flight from, of all people, God. Leaping spasmodically from war-torn Napoleonic Italy to the stricken Titanic via Sherwood Forest and Ancient Greece, the inept band of pint-sized wannabe outlaws bicker, squabble and ego-pummel each other along in an ever-more-futile attempt to pull off a series of major heists. Once they’ve incurred the wrath of the aforementioned Supreme Being (a boomingly immaculate Ralph Richardson), the trans-eon pursuit rattles along at breakneck speed with the help of a mysterious map of “portals” nicked from their enraged former employer.
As Gilliam explains in a grainy archive Q&A, he shot the movie almost entirely from a low-level perspective, enhancing the action by putting us on a level with our diminutive antiheroes and their permanently goggle-eyed companion. Impressive cameos are scattered throughout (Sean Connery as Agamemnon stealing the limelight from Ian Holm’s Napoleon and John Cleese’s Robin Hood), while a smattering of genuinely challenging moments ensure that the narrative carefully steers a course around condescension. Most notably, the sudden demise of ‘nice’ dwarf Fidgit (Kenny Baker) is a true tumbleweed moment, right up there with Bambi and the rifle crack for kiddie hysterics potential. (Gilliam: “You just don’t do that to kids. And that’s exactly why you DO!”)
Once you also factor in the deeply philosophical climax (why DOES pure evil have to exist, anyway?), it becomes abundantly clear that Time Bandits isn’t simply a cracking children’s quest film. It’s a quest film children will enjoy, for sure. It has all the classic anklebiter-courting elements, from a schoolboy protagonist to an epic, ongoing struggle between towering forces of suave, beardy good and camp, cackling bad. But the relentless pace of the gleefully disjointed narrative is distinctly... well, actually, according to Gilliam, even that worked for the young ’uns. “The first time I showed it, a lot of adults were struggling with the film because it was going too fast for them. They didn’t know where they were; the signposts weren’t clear. It was leaping around all over the place – which the kids immediately just went for. They had the confidence to believe in this, to trust us and go with it.” You’d be well advised to do the same.