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Criterion goes 3-for-3 with Terry Gilliam’s marvelous, magical ‘Time Bandits’


A history buff of the first order, 11-year-old Kevin (Craig Warnock, third from the left) joins the Time Bandits – Wally (Jack Purvis, left), Vermin (Tiny Ross), Og (Mike Edmonds), Randall (David Rappaport), Fidgit (Kenny Baker), and Strutter (Malcolm Dixon) – on their romp through the ages.

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4K Ultra HD & Blu-ray, 1981, PG violence and language Best extra: An interview with director/co-writer Terry Gilliam held at the 1998 Midnight Sun Film Festival in Finland

POKE AROUND online and you’ll find all kinds of descriptions for “Time Bandits.” It’s a “cheerfully irreverent lark,” an “allegorical fantasy nightmare,” an “enterprising project in free-form cinema.” And there’s this, from Criterion: It’s “at once a giddy fairy tale, a revisionist history lesson and a satire of technology gone awry.” Those filters are OK, if that’s your thing, but they don’t come close to the boundlessly imaginative heart of Terry Gilliam’s endlessly awesome 1981 classic: It’s a kids’ movie and, thanks to a big helping of “Monty Python” seasoning from Gilliam and co-writer/co-alum Michael Palin, one for big kids, too. How could it be anything but? Eleven-year-old Kevin (Craig Warnock, “To the Lighthouse”) absorbs books on history and ancient Greek heroes while his vegetated, gadget-fixated parents imagine winning appliances on a TV game show. One night, a horseman from a distant realm charges out of the boy’s wardrobe and vanishes through the wall. The next night, six dwarfs – none of whom are to be confused with Grumpy, Dopey & Co. – tumble into his room. And … we’re off, and at a frenetic pace that never lets up.

(1-3) Kevin is engrossed in a book on one of his favorite subjects, Greek heroes, when a horseman from a distant realm charges out of his wardrobe, through his bedroom wall, and sends the boy to his wall of drawings. (4&5) The next night, the Time Bandits appear. They’ve “appropriated” a time-travel map from the Supreme Being and are using it to steal treasure.

Turns out that Randall (David Rappaport), Fidgit (Kenny Baker), Strutter (Malcolm Dixon), Og (Mike Edmonds), Wally (Jack Purvis) and Vermin (Tiny Ross) used to work for the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson, “Doctor Zhivago”) until they purloined a map showing them how to time travel. Are they using it for personal enlightenment? Ha! They’re dropping in here and there and stealing treasure. Supreme Being wants his map back. Evil Genius (David Warner, “Tron”) wants it, too. It’s the key to him getting out of guess-where. With Kevin in tow, they first drop in on Napoleon -- Ian Holm (“The Lord of the Rings”) practically steals the movie – then Sherwood Forest. This Robin Hood, though, is no Errol Flynn. He’s John Cleese (“Monty Python”) and, news flash, he’s a hoot and a half. From there it’s on to ancient Greece, where they encounter the noble King Agamemnon (Sean Connery, where to start?). No surprise that Kevin wants to stay. They also land on the deck of the Titanic and, finally, in the lair of Evil Genius. This is where the Good vs. Evil story changes gears – it’s even been dismissed in some corners as dark and twisted. Don’t believe it. Gilliam and Palin play fair and, more notably, don’t condescend. A word to Mom and Dad: If younger kids are watching, you should, too. The who’s-who supporting cast includes Peter Vaughan (Gilliam’s “Brazil”), Katherine Helmond (ditto), Shelley Duvall (“The Shining”), Palin (“A Fish Called Wanda”) and Jim Broadbent (“Topsy-Turvy”). There isn’t a false note anywhere. And the nimble camerawork of cinematographer Peter Biziou (“The Truman Show”) keeps the ball rolling, especially his use of a low-mounted camera to show a child’s perspective.

(1-4) The first stop is the Napoleonic Wars and face time with “Le Petit Caporal” himself (Ian Holm, fourth screenshot, second from right). (5) Then it’s on to Sherwood Forest, where an unctuous Robin Hood (John Cleese) looks over the Bandits’ haul. (6) David Warner chews the scenery, and goes back for seconds, as Evil Genius.

VIDEO/AUDIO With Gilliam’s “The Fisher King” and “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” already under its 4K UHD belt, Criterion is on a run. Struck from the 35 mm original camera negative and supervised by Gilliam, “Time Bandits” (1.85: 1 aspect ratio) delivers the total package. The Dolby Vision HDR toning expands the range of colors and draws out all kinds of details, from Gilliam’s favored super-tight close-ups to the wonderful, meticulous handiwork of production designer Milly Burns, art director Norman Garwood and costume designer James Archeson. The grain is solid and consistent and the blacks are deeeep. There’s only one audio track – the standard English LPCM 2.0, probably the same one from the previous Blu-ray release. It holds up fine. The witty dialogue, special effects and lively score courtesy of Mike Moran (“The Missionary”) never get in one another’s way. There isn’t a trace of hiss. EXTRAS All of them have been picked up from the earlier Criterion Blu-ray. A Gilliam commentary is usually the best place to start, and while this one isn’t bad by any means, it’s too busy, with contributions from Palin, Cleese, Warner and Warnock. It’s also a composite. Far better is Gilliam’s lengthy conservation with film scholar Peter von Bagh from the 1998 Midnight Sun Film Festival in Finland. Hearing him talk about his early influences is great fun and especially revealing. “The Thief of Baghdad” and epics like “Ben-Hur” were huge inspirations, but it was radio, he says, that “trained me to see things. You have to invent things, put faces on the actors.” Then, there was that summer internship at an architect firm in Los Angeles and a stint on an automobile assembly line. The first taught him to never, ever compromise, the latter that “I would never work on something that I didn’t have control over. I would do work I wanted to do.” Sound familiar? Other extras include a short feature on the film’s historical periods and fantasy worlds with Burns and Acheson, Duvall’s 1981 appearance on Tom Snyder’s “Tomorrow” show, a photo gallery and author David Sterritt’s insightful essay, “Guerrilla Fantasy.” “Time Bandits,” he writes, was Gilliam’s “first masterpiece.” No argument here. – Craig Shapiro

(1-3) In Ancient Greece, they meet the noble King Agamemnon (Sean Connery). Kevin doesn’t want to leave. (4) Peter Vaughan and Katherine Helmond play Mr. and Mrs. Ogre. (5) The adventurers consult the map to find a way out of their predicament. (6-7) Compere (Jim Broadbent), a game-show host, makes the Evil Genius’ lair especially hellish. The bad guy finally gets his hand on the Supreme Being’s map, but he won’t have it long.

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