I’d never fully understood the meaning of the phrase: ‘having one’s cake and eating it’ because a cake only really has one function unless you’re planning an elaborate food fight, but after watching Time Bandits it started to become a little clearer to me. It has a perfectly workable premise, but overreaches itself far too often, and has a rather clumsy lack of focus. But I get ahead of myself, let’s roll back a bit.
This was recommended to me by a friend on the reasonable assumption that because I like Monty Python films, and the work of Terry Gilliam in general, that it would be right up my street, and upon looking at a plot synopsis it wasn’t hard to see why, it sounded like Holy Grail, but with a bigger budget. Granted, part of Grail‘s charms was its creative ways around its lack of budget, but still, in theory, a bigger budget and better production values would deliver a better product; unfortunately, theories are flimsy things that are broken easier than Russell Brand’s (remember him? The late 2000’s sure were fun) oaths of fidelity.
Time Bandits is a fantasy film that sees 11-year-old Kevin (Craig Warnock) whisked away from his banal life, and taken on a journey across time by six dwarves (as in fantastical creatures, not the ableist slur) who possess a map that allows them to jump to different periods.
I think we can all agree that this is a fairly solid concept for a fantasy film aimed at children, and one with a fair bit of potential, unfortunately, the key concept gets a bit lost in an unfocused plot that misses the perfectly simple narrative devices right in front of its eyes, instead choosing to over-complicate proceedings, and try and squeeze as much as possible out of this intriguing concept. Then squeezing a little bit more until nothing remains but the remnants of the good ideas the film once had.
On top of the ‘time-travelling band of dwarves’ concept is a rather clumsy attempt at a typical ‘good vs evil’ conflict, manifesting itself as almost literally a fight between God and the Devil. I understand children’s fantasies are supposed to be goofy and off-the-wall, but this aspect of the plot really began to test my patience towards the end, as the all-powerful manifestation of Evil (David Warner) sneers like a panto villain.
It has the air of a story told by a child as opposed to for one. It isn’t so much crafted as thrown together, as the characters bumble randomly from one time-period to the next, with no discernable consequences of their meddling with time.
There’s no real connectivity to the story, rather than a cohesive development from one era to another, the assigned places they end up feeling extremely random; it really begins to feel as though this isn’t as much a structured adventure as it was thrown together on a busy weekend.
Kevin is a rather empty character, but he’s a surrogate for the intended audience, an every-child, onto which the audience can project themselves, he’s just there, not particularly adding to events, but observing them, as a sort of dumbstruck onlooker. As the main character, he’s bland but passable. Someone everyone can relate to from their own childhood.
As for the dwarves, they were the most baffling part of this whole film. Firstly, they’re all completely interchangeable, bar a few individual personality quirks you’d be forgiven for getting them all confused with one another. They’re essentially the driving force of the movie, but they don’t feel special in any way, they all blend together like one homogenous mass of mediocrity.
Secondly, I don’t precisely know why they had to be dwarves (again, using that word to describe the mythical creatures, please don’t dog-pile me) there’s an allusion to them working for the Supreme Being (this universe’s version of God) but never more than that. Are we led to believe that God has an army of dwarf workers then? Are they the Oompa-Loompas to his Willy Wonka? I don’t know, and it isn’t explained either.
Adding to the overall confusion and disjointed feel is the rapid rate in which characters are introduced, established and then never seen again. I understand that a film with a time-travel framework is probable;y going to make use of that to show us different historical figures, but with the collective time they all spend on screen, they needn’t have bothered. They don’t add anything to the plot, they’re just sort of there.
Take, for instance, John Cleese. Who received top billing in the opening credits, his performance as Robin Hood barely lasts five minutes. He takes some treasure from the heroes and they all skulk off, without so much as an argument, then they move on to the next period. Well, what was the point of that? Besides shoe-horning a Python cameo into a film that already feels too long, even without digressing the plot.
There are a few sections of this film that led me questioning the point of it all, in fact, that’s how I came away from the movie as a whole, overwhelmingly disappointed, and asking myself: ‘what was the point in any of that?’
It’s frustrating, because the premise itself, and some of the scenarios the film presents have tons of promise, just in terms of the surreality for which Gilliam is known, but even they feel half-hearted and not very well thought out.
For a film that includes: time-travelling dwarves, a giant who uses a boat for a hat, and a height-obsessed Napoleon nearly dying laughing whilst watching a Punch and Judy show, it’s unforgivably dull. It didn’t leave me gawping at the wonder of the fantastical events on screen, it just left me constantly looking at my watch.
Add to that a truly baffling ending that leads the main character as confused as I am, and you have an incredibly disappointing experience. One that left me scratching my head at all the missed opportunities, and wondering where it all went wrong, especially considering the director. Holy Grail might have had 100% less of the budget, but it was 100% more enjoyable.