Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 17, 2010)
I'd like to share a little story with you. At the risk of escalated expectations, I believe it clearly to be the Greatest Story Ever Told.
My friend Kevin's father Onions (his real name is "John" but we refer to him as "Onions" for obscure reasons that will remain that way) actually originated this tale. One day during dinner, Onions informed the gathered flock that while in times past he did not enjoy the flavor of the condiment called "mustard," in the present day he most clearly does delight in a little savory sauciness. Onions said, and I quote, "I didn't used to like mustard, but now I do."
It still brings a little tear to my eye.
Anyway, I mention this epic simply to introduce the notion that tastes and feelings tend to change over time. We all know this, so why must I belabor the obvious and waste time? Because I love what we affectionately refer to as The Mustard Story and because I couldn't think of any better way to introduce my review of Time Bandits.
When I saw the film theatrically in the fall of 1981, I really liked it, and I continued to enjoy Bandits on video after that. However, it never became one of my all-time favorites, so I went long stretches during which I didn’t watch the movie. When I gave it a modern reappraisal, I decided that it offers a fun and fairly entertaining but rather spotty film. Certainly it possesses a clever and wide-open plot, as it tells the tale of a group of would-be thieves who use doorways into different time zones to plunder the riches of the past.
Actually, that brief synopsis tells you both less and more of the situation. "More" in that it implies that Time Bandits actually has a plot. It doesn't, really. The time-travelling setup exists mainly as an excuse to get our principals to interact wackily with famous denizens of other lands and eras. Oh, it attempts something of an arc in that our heroes are occasionally threatened by The Supreme Being (Sir Ralph Richardson) and need to elude him. In addition, a being who embodies evil - called the Evil Genius, actually (David Warner) – tries to capture them, but the story elements seem somewhat half-hearted.
When I say that my synopsis doesn't really offer a full picture of the story, however, I mean that it doesn't inform you of the richness of the movie's background. You see, the heroes to whom I refer are not just everyday, ordinary time-travelers. No, they're a group of six dwarfs; the seventh, Horseflesh, died before the start of the events in the movie. They’ve worked since the beginning of time as assistants to The Supreme Being, and they took charge of trees and shrubs. However, they received criticism for some poor work so they steal a map that shows "holes" in the universe, which exist because creation was something of a botched job.
These holes let our group hop in and out of different time periods, and they've decided to use this advantage to get stinking rich. Thus begins their attempt to become proper criminals, and there's your title!
Also along for the ride is Kevin (Craig Warnock), a young boy into whose bedroom the bandits inadvertently arrive one evening. He's a bright child whose dim, materialistic parents seem to stifle him. As such, he clearly doesn't miss them as he cavorts through time, especially since he's a wee history buff.
As I mentioned earlier, clearly this premise offers a wealth of opportunities, both comic and adventure. Early in the film, humor strongly dominates as our group robs Napoleon (Ian Holm) and then encounters Robin Hood (John Cleese). Admittedly, the structure of the film to this point resembles glorified sketches, not surprising considering the Monty Python pedigree behind it. Also not surprisingly, this portion of the film - up through the first 45 minutes or so – consistently entertains and delights. The section in Sherwood Forest provides probably the movie’s strongest sequence.
But then Kevin gets separated from his mates when he chooses the wrong time gate and he ends up in ancient Greece. Happy coincidence for Kevin, since we already know that he digs Agamemnon (Sean Connery). Guess onto whom Kevin literally falls when he arrives? We then get a somewhat extended segment where Kevin enters into that society and becomes adopted by Agamemnon.
This is where the movie starts to falter. This segment seems to serve little purpose in the film. Ultimately, the bandits find Kevin and take him with them, against his strong wishes to the contrary. Now removed from his dream existence, Kevin clearly resents and dislikes his old comrades, but that factor plays virtually no role in the plot; Kevin sulks for a scene and then the action resumes as if nothing ever happened.
So what was the point of the whole Agamemnon thing, other than to give the movie an excuse to feature Connery? I have not a clue. Virtually nothing interesting happens during this segment. Actually, I feel astonished to see how short this part of the film is. I always thought it went on forever, and it certainly seems that way when I watch Time Bandits. In actuality, however, it only occupies 13 minutes of screen time. 13 minutes!? Seems like a lot more than that.
Once that misery ends, the film becomes more entertaining, but by then, it's lost lots of momentum and the remaining material isn't quite strong enough to buoy it back to its previous levels. Time Bandits lurches toward the inevitable confrontations at its climax, and it offers some nice bits of humor along the way, but the whole enterprise seems a little tedious and worn out by the time the film finally does end.
Oh well, at least the first 45 minutes entertain well enough to largely make up for the rest. There's some terrific material and wonderful performances in there. Holm and Cleese do some hilarious bits, and the film portrays a fantastically skewed view of history. I won't even bother to relate some of the comic gags, because they won't translate at all to the printed page, but suffice it to say that there's some great work going on during the early parts of Time Bandits.
The main redeeming aspects of the later parts of the film come from actors as well. We see David Warner's hammily sadistic portrayal of the Evil Genius throughout the movie, but he gets most of his work toward the end. Ralph Richardson offers a wonderfully crusty portrayal of The Supreme Being as well. Too bad there wasn't more of interest happening around them.
As the primary cast, the leading small actors provide fine performances. It's really very nice to see these "vertically challenged" folk getting actual roles to play instead of functioning as glorified props. David Rappaport's great as "leader" Randall, and be sure to note Kenny "R2-D2" Baker as Fidgit (that's what I meant by the "prop" crack). As young Kevin, Craig Warnock's perfectly fine if somewhat lifeless; he neither hurts nor really helps the film, which is actually pretty good for a child actor; many of them actively harm the flicks in which they appear.
Interestingly, Sean Connery's performance probably represents the low point of the film, though I don't blame him. His entire segment is such a disaster and he's given such weak material with which to work that I doubt there was much he could do.
I can’t say that Time Bandits lives up to my childhood memories of it, and the movie certainly seems rather erratic. However, it includes a lot of great material. Despite the slow points and the bad scenes, enough of the film works well that I think it’s good overall.