Let me take you back to January 8-14, 1982. That week, the Cincinnati Bengals defeated the San Diego Chargers in negative 59 degree temperatures to with the AFC Championship, Honduras officially adopted a constitution, Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson were elected to the MLB Hall of Fame, Kate Middleton was born, and Terry Gilliam’s fantasy adventure Time Bandits was the #1 film in America.
Part Princess Bride, part Bill & Ted, the premise of Time Bandits is as enjoyable as it is radical. Living a comfortable, all-too-boring life in the idyllic suburbs, young Kevin is surprised by a pack of time traveling wannabe notorious criminal dwarves who crash through a portal in his bedroom closet. Together, they go on increasingly dangerous escapades through time, rubbing elbows with the likes of Napoleon, Robin Hood, and the ultimate evil. With the perfect Gilliam style, it is highly satirical of consumer culture and a champion for the underdog. It is fun, irreverent, full of heroics, appealing for children and adults, and also a pretty big box office hit.
Despite being in half the number of theaters as its opposition in early January of 1982, Time Bandits grossed $8 MM more than the second placed re-issue of Disney’s Cinderella. Its $37 thousand screen average over the week is exceptional even by today’s standards.
This might just be hipsterism on my part, thinking the film is too interesting for mainstream audiences to get, but the success is a bit surprising. Time Bandits was incredibly ahead of its time in blending its caustic style of humor with fantasy and horror genre elements. Terry Gilliam was no stranger to comedy, obviously as part of the Monty Python gang, but taking that generally adult and highly absurdist humor and plopping it squarely into a kids’ film must have been pretty risky. As the 80s went along, this style would become more the norm in films like Gremlins and Ghostbusters and the oncoming PG-13 revolution. Sure, Time Bandits has something to owe to The Wizard of Oz and probably other films that came before, but the complete product still today feels fresh.
It is ambitious in its narrative scope and philosophical themes, audacious for creating legitimate heros out of thieves. It challenges child audiences in the best ways possible. The final thematic question of “why is there evil in the world” is a concept most parents would rather avoid, yet it has become an increasingly important one. Sure, the evils depicted in Time Bandits isn’t exactly on the same wavelength of what we see in the news today, though the cartoonishly heightened embodiment of Evil and his dimwitted henchmen can be legitimately scary and certainly cruel. The film doesn’t pull any punches in exploring death or hate.
The other interesting aspect of the film’s success is its cast. Yes, Sean Connery is in the film, but in a very minor role, basically just one scene, though likely enough for marketing purposes. There is a fun supporting cast all around, including Monty Python vets Michael Palin and John Cleese, as well as Ian Holm, Shelley Duvall, and David Warner. Again, none of them really household names, nor major players in the film. The entirety of Time Bandits is spent with a young boy and half dozen dwarves. If the film were made today, no doubt there would be some Snow White and the Huntsman CGI effects to implant known actors into the roles. Perhaps Warwick Davis would be cast, Peter Dinklage probably passes on the remake.
Unsurprisingly, the central cast is amazing and perfect for Gilliam’s sensibilities. Not only are they authentic to their roles, they are hilariously funny, full of personality and with great chemistry. OK, the child audience surrogate Kevin is a bit whiny, but the performances of David Rappaport [Randall], Kenny Baker [Fidgit], Malcolm Dixon [Strutter], Mike Edmonds [Og], Jack Purvis [Wally], and especially Tiny Ross [Vermin] are irreplaceable. Giving them a profile they’d never had before and sadly never would get again, this group completely relishes the opportunity. They give extremely confident performances without any pretension or self-awareness.
According to Terry Gilliam, the box office success of Time Bandits allowed him to complete and release his follow-up, the weirdo masterpiece Brazil. Of course, it wasn’t as seamless as that, but it is a bonus on top of how wonderful Time Bandits remains. In terms of the filmmaker’s career, it is in an interesting sweet spot of being his most accessible, mainstream film that doesn’t water down the style or voice of its unique auteur.