In part of what writer/director Terry Gilliam calls his “Trilogy of Imagination,” Time Bandits represents the adolescent perspective: a period of wonder, amazement, magic, and disappointment. It’s an adventure tale in which a child journeys through holes in the universe with six bandits who’ve made off with G-d’s map, utilizing the universe’s incomplete nature as a means for personal gain. It’s a story packed with ideas that can be enjoyed by adult audiences or taken at face value by adolescent ones. The film, first released in 1981, is one of six films The Criterion Collection has reproduced in a home release package for personal exploration, and the latest one is, itself, the fourth presentation of Gilliam’s Time Bandits. This time around, however, Criterion offers the fantastical tale in a 4K UHD with Dolby Vision HDR, offering a chance to see the film like never before, accompanied by the special features of its predecessors.
British child Kevin (Craig Warnock) would prefer to curl up with his books, exploring the history and lore of Europe, feeding his curiosity and imagination, than sit with his parents in front of the television. One night, however, after being chastised for staying up reading, the most incredible thing happens: the Green Knight on his horse comes barreling through Kevin’s wardrobe, his bedroom replaced by the woods of Arthurian legend. But, as fast and terrifying as it occurs, it’s all back to normal. The next night, Kevin prepares in case something else comes through his wardrobe door, but he couldn’t possibly be ready for six thieves on the run from a bodiless floating head. Terrified and confused, Kevin finds himself joining leader Randall (David Rappaport) as they jump from time and place, stealing what they can and running away, not realizing that, outside their view, they are being tracked by Evil itself (David Warner) who wants something from them and is steering them straight toward him.
As mentioned, this new 4K UHD edition is not brand-new exactly, but a new format for an old member of the catalogue. This means that that this includes the same bonus features as the 2014 2K Blu-ray release, which gathers the materials from 1999 DVD and 1997 LaserDisc. So if you’ve owned any of those editions, all that Criterion is offering with the 4K edition is exactly that, a disc with a new upgraded presentation. If that’s all you’re interested in, then I’m delighted to confirm that the presentation is, for the most part, lovely. With the exception of the sequence when the characters are shown journeying to the Time of Legends when the image is inverted as a negative, there’s very little visible grain, the colors are sharp and natural for the bulk of the film, except where there’s intentional enhancement of hue (like shining red on Evil’s face to make him look far more menacing). There doesn’t appear to be any restoration done on the audio track, which is itself frustrating as much of the dialogue is very quiet when playing through my 5.1 surround sound system. To be clear, there’s no issue with the film not being compatible with a modern home theater, not every film needs to have a 5.1+ track; however, the fact that the dialogue wasn’t as crisp or clear as prior Gilliam restorations is frustrating. Thankfully there is an easy-to-activate closed-caption track accessible. I used that as a double when the dialogue dropped too low to follow without blasting the volume.
Joining the sameness is the packaging, with the same art design on the outside as is on the inside with the enclosed essay and release information. One nice touch in the home release is the use of a lenticular version of the cover art on the slip, conveying the silly, fantastical feel of the film before even removing the plastic. This bit may be new as I don’t recall seeing this slip-on Time Bandits before when visiting Barnes & Noble. Especially considering the rising popularity of slips (and steelbooks) as ways to protect/standout from regular home releases, by adding this slip to the 4K edition, Criterion may be intentionally baiting prior owners to jump back in to this particular pool. Otherwise, all indications convey that the total packaging — from case, liner art, liner note styling, and included essay — is identical to the 2k Blu-ray release.
What isn’t old hat is my reaction to the film. Surprisingly, despite being aware of Time Bandits’s existence, I’d only seen portions of it when it ran on Comedy Central in the ‘80s. The parts I’d seen unsettled me — the floating head of G-d (called Supreme Being throughout), Warner’s costuming and performance as Evil, the sudden death of Kevin’s parents, and the nonchalant reaction by the firefighters to it — so I presumed Time Bandits was a comedic horror film or, at the least, for older kids. To a degree, both reactions are accurate, if one takes into account Gilliam’s own thoughts on the film, which he shares with critic David Sterritt in the included essay, “Time Bandits: Guerrilla Fantasy.” There, Gilliam suggests that the film doesn’t look away from the horrifying because he is of the mind that children can handle a certain amount of challenge or trauma in their films. Having grown up on films like The NeverEnding Story (1984) and The Land Before Time (1988), I’m inclined to agree with Gilliam here. However, the images within Time Bandits were too much for me then and I relegated it to the same category of films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), which I watched as a more mature adult and was able to appreciate. In the case of Time Bandits, I was better able to understand and explore, even if, on the whole, the film did little for me in terms of excitement. Though the watch did finally aid me in confirming that I knew Rappaport from somewhere, the short-lived television program The Wizard that he starred in as the titular master of magic fighting evil in the modern era. It’s not uncommon for a film not to resonate in some way, and where I can appreciate the details in cinematography and costuming, the performances from the cavalcade of A-list talent (Ian Holm as Napoleon, Sean Connery as King Agamemnon, Shelly Duval as Pansy (in two time periods), and, of course, Warner), and the ingenuity in concept, I felt too distanced from Time Bandits to enjoy it. Oddly, I loved The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) as a child and still love it now, the final film in Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination” which explores the end of one’s life and its meaning, yet I could not as a child nor can I now connect with a film centered on adolescent curiosity and exploration.
One of life’s great questions, indeed.
All that said, if you’re a stanch Gilliam fan and/or like to have your physical media in the best format possible, snagging the 4K re-issue of Time Bandits is likely a foregone conclusion. Certainly, I’m delighted to have finally seen the film in full, if only to better appreciate Brazil (1985) and Munchausen in their roles in the trilogy, as well as to see where Gilliam would later revisit certain narrative concepts in future projects. Between this and the first-time watch of The Fisher King (1991), the idea that Gilliam would want to tackle Don Quixote in some form or another makes these films seem like trial runs until the opportunity would come. Which, if you haven’t seen The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018), it’s a story told in only the way Gilliam can and (fittingly) also well-describes Time Bandits — weird, wild, and at the edge of madness.
Time Bandits Special Features:
- New 4K restoration, supervised by director Terry Gilliam, with uncompressed stereo soundtrack
- One 4K UHD disc of the film presented in Dolby Vision HDR and one Blu-ray of the film with special features
- Audio commentary featuring Gilliam, cowriter-actor Michael Palin, and actors John Cleese, David Warner, and Craig Warnock
- Program on the creation of the film’s various historical periods and fantasy worlds, narrated by film writer David Morgan and featuring production designer Milly Burns and costume designer James Acheson
- Conversation between Gilliam and film scholar Peter von Bagh, recorded at the 1998 Midnight Sun Film Festival
- Appearance by actor Shelley Duvall on Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow show from 1981
- Gallery of rare photographs from the set
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: An essay by critic David Sterritt
- Cover based on a theatrical poster
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD from The Criterion Collection June 13th, 2023.