After submerging myself finally into Time Bandits, perhaps too late (or too soon, if I had kids maybe it would've been a different experience), I found it reminded me of a live-action version of one of these animated adventures I would watch on TV as a kid, where a child would be brought into a fantastical universe away from his dull, ordinary existence, with strange friends/characters, and then go on adventures. In a couple of small ways its even palatable to the Terry Jones/Jim Henson collaboration Labyrinth. But the difference here is that it is fused with some more mature humor and some darker elements. In a way this is what the college-age fans of Monty Python in the 70's must have seen as the perfect film to take their kids to see in the 80's. Terry Gilliam, co-writer/director (co-written with fellow Python Michael Palin), knows how to entertain, and many sequences are terrific. It's a shame that some of them were not as much, and a little spotty. The sheer zaniness though, and the will for Gilliam to keep throwing visual gags and intense, fun imagery, keeps it never boring.
It's without a doubt that Time Bandits is in a sense a more 'mainstream' (err, accessible) picture than many of Gilliam's other works, mostly because it tries to reach into the imagination in all people, young and old. Kevin (Craig Warnock, a good straight-character for the audience amid all the ruckus), is in a land of his own imagination, until a group of pillaging dwarfs (played by the likes of David Rappaport and Kenny 'R2-D2- Baker) traveling through time with a stolen map with gaps through time provided by a crazed 'supreme being'. They visit Napoleon (Ian Holm, an ingenious role), Robin Hood (John Cleese), and by accident King Agamemnon (Sean Connery, an unexpectedly cool role). But when the Evil Genius (David Warner, one of the funniest performances of the film) knows they have it, he'll do anything to lure them in to get it from them.
This leads to a climax that in a darker, more scrambled way, reminded me of the climax of Blazing Saddles. There, like in this film, the story almost runs off the tracks, as many parts of history come into play with the forces of good versus evil. It does come to a satisfying conclusion, but in a small way is almost too much. Pauline Kael's comment that "the film suffers from a surfeit of good ideas" is not without some truth. There are so many jokes, so much imagination, so much creativity, its like a tipping scale that balances back and forth, rarely in the middle, of how affecting it is. For children, therefore, it is a sure bet, because children (for all of the modern corporate grabbing and testing of material) thrive on material like this, where the appearance of a comedian like Michael Palin in two separate, hilarious roles, doesn't matter as much as the sheer one-of-a-kind nature of everything put together. Some of the film is violent (as when the Evil Genius blows things up randomly), but always like a cartoon; one can sense the animation influence in the style's bones.
And that is what separates this film from the other films and shows I saw as a child, that there is this need on the part of the filmmaker not to stick to anything really expected, while still in a 'once upon a time' framework. Some jokes may not be funny to kids until they get older, but images like the giant trudging slowly through the water, the dwarfs in a peril in the cages, the pageantry of the Greek sequences. It's all delightful, but also a little overwhelming, and of course a bit much on the first go-around.