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Time Bandits

Dir. Terry Gilliam, 1981

You're 12 years old.

There you are, minding your own business, and out of nowhere, it hits you—a sudden and inescapable realization that the world is bullshit.

You love history and adventure, but in a single moment, you realize that you are destined for a life spent navigating bureaucracy while mindlessly consuming. It's all fucked up.   Your parents sit around watching inane game shows that feature actual murder and talk about what appliances they’re going to buy  . . The stories, the adventure you crave, the magic of the world fizzles out, like so much air out of a whoopie cushion.

Then, a bunch of time-traveling, kleptomaniac dwarfs come crashing into your bedroom.
This is the beginning of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. Our protagonist, Kevin, is swept away by a group of, well, time bandits who, we learn, were once mechanics responsible for maintaining spacetime. They got greedy, and stole the Supreme Being’s (a very Old Testament kind of dude) map of the universe and are now running around stealing from famous people throughout history. Hot on their heels is Evil, who wants to take the map for himself, and the Supreme Being, who wants his property back.

So that’s the setup—and most of the plot.

Time Bandits is a towering achievement in that it marries the experiences of the innocence of childhood with the abject horror and insanity of the world that adults inhabit. The adult world is a garbage pile of power abuses, torture, and silliness. There is magic in it somewhere, but the journey to discover that magic is not for the faint of heart, something Kevin learns at great expense.
As he gallivants with his friends through history, Kevin meets Robin Hood (John Cleese), Napoleon (Ian Holm), and King Agamemnon (Sean Connery). Each one appears in a distinctly Gilliam-sort-of-way—Napoleon is mostly excited about watching “little things hitting each other,” while Robin Hood is engaged in a benevolent parody of wealth distribution.

With Agamemnon, however, Kevin finds a father figure who’s involved and interested in him. Kevin would gladly stay with the king forever (and so would we, the audience, I mean it’s Sean Connery, come on), but the Time Bandits come, rob him, and steal Kevin away. Moments of magic and comfort are almost always followed by soul-sucking emptiness in Gilliam’s work, and Time Bandits is no exception, in spite of its goofy-seeming trappings.
I won’t spoil the ending here, but needless to say, sentimentality gets skewered. Everything gets skewered. This is Gilliam's specialty, after all. No low-hanging fruit for the audience. The dwarves are never made the butt of a joke. God is ultimately not interested in anything except for things to keep working. Seasoned comic giants like Michael Palin and Shelley Duvall make an appearance, and they’re ridiculous to the point of becoming grotesque.

Time Bandits is about taking what magic you can get in the horror show of the world, right up to the end. It's a movie about the cost of realizing that our world is a shadow play, constructed by forces outside of our control or permission. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't have a good time. It's a movie that cuts deep, and we should be grateful for that. Our world is designed to numb us, and sometimes we need to be shaken awake before we end up as an inert lump of carbon (SPOILER).

Where can I watch it?

At the time of this email, Time Bandits is available to stream on Filmstruck. I'm not paid by them, so I'm not exactly sure about the details, but it's a part of the Criterion Collection, and those films are available with that streaming service.

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