Comedy Oddities: Time Bandits

time bandits indexRight now Thor Ragnarok director Taika Waititi is working on a tv version of Terry Gilliam’s much loved film Time Bandits, with no one involved from the original film despite the fact that director Gilliam and his co-writer Michael Palin are alive and well and still producing interesting fare. Perhaps it’s not such a bad thing though, the film has its moments and is amusing enough in places but it’s an extremely patchy and quite disjointed piece.

It starts with Kevin and his very middle class family watching a tacky quiz show on tv and his father seems to be a moany old sort, but when Kevin is sent off to bed suddenly a knight on horseback emerges from his wardrobe. But did it really happen, or does Kevin just have an overactive imagination / serious mental illness? The next night Kevin can’t wait to go to bed to find out, and when he does so this time the time bandits (David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, Malcolm Dixon, Mike Edmonds, Jack Purvis and Tiny Ross ) emerge from his wardrobe, having stolen a map from the Supreme Being (aka God) that lets them know how to travel through doorways in time.

It’s a poorly paced affair, their first bit of time travelling involves robbing Napoleon where we get about ten minutes of Napoleon going on and on about his height, and comparing himself to other short well known historical figures, and the joke is stretched beyond breaking point. But once Randall and co have robbed him the travel to medieval times to spend far too short a period with a very posh Robin Hood (John Cleese) who is an awful lot of fun but sadly on screen for a very, very short time, and the same applies with Michael Palin’s Vincent and Shelly Duvall’s Pansy.

At this point we’re introduced to the villain of the piece, Evil One (David Warner) who destroys anyone who questions him, even if they have a good point, and is desperate to attain the map the time bandits have so that he can escape “The Fortress Of Ultimate Darkness”. He’s quickly forgotten about however as Kevin travels back to save Sean Connery from a minotaur, and though he’s briefly separated from the Time Bandits soon they kidnap him against his will and we’re off once again to a new time and place, the Titanic.

Here there’s a different version of Pansy and Vincent who are presumably descendants of the other two, and Vincent’s obsessed about something being on the end of his nose, and is just about to ask Pansy to marry him when the bandits drop in again. It’s meant to be funny but it’s not, especially the reveal that Vincent is bald and Pansy is horrified by it, it’s histrionic but not in an amusing way. At least once the Titanic does the inevitable we’re off to The Fortress Of Ultimate Darkness, via a meeting with a giant, and Kevin gets a surprise reunion too.

It’s a film which is often big on spectacle but it doesn’t lead to much laughter in the way that is intended, and a good few of the action scenes are surprisingly bland. Sean Connery fighting a minotaur should be amazing but it’s strangely tedious, while scenes with the Giant stomping about and crushing buildings in his way lacks excitement. Visually it’s sometimes stunning, but it’s also quite a murky film and deliberately poorly lit, the past is meant to feel grimy but sometimes Gilliam overdoes this.

Apart from Randall and Wally the majority of the Time Bandits don’t get well defined characters, and Evil One isn’t in it enough to become a truly fearsome villain that we should be disturbed by, though he does at least up his game when he goes on a murderous rampage towards the end. Kevin’s a likeable tyke and a few of the many, many characters that we meet are amusing enough too, but the ones who are funny nearly always seem to get the least screen time.

There’s elements which work, Jim Broadbent’s quiz show is a cute moment and John Cleese’s Robin Hood is hugely entertaining, and the ending is particularly strong, but given it’s a work by Gilliam and Palin at their peak it’s disappointing how often this misfires, or just gently intrigues but rarely anything more than that. Too often it wastes its all star cast, and it’s a rare occasion where it is a film which would have benefitted from having fewer ideas, with the remaining ones explored in a much more engaging manner.

★★3/4

Alex Finch.
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