Terry Gilliam's "Time Bandits" is a 1981 fantasy adventure, produced by George Harrison (who supplies a catchy end-credits tune) and Denis O'Brien; written by Gilliam and Michael Palin. In addition to Gilliam and Palin, it also features fellow Monty Python member, John Cleese. On various levels, it exudes the troupe's comic sensibilities.
The movie is also a story of escape: its time-travel component predominately a means for its young hero to flee a doleful reality. Like the youngster in "NeverEnding Story", Kevin (Craig Warnock) perceives the present as spiritless. His parents (David Daker and Shiela Fearn) are preoccupied with game-show television; he, on the other hand, holds a keen interest in history and "faraway places with strange sounding names". As fate would have it, his bedroom contains a time portal, which grants passage to a passing knight one evening and soon thereafter a most mischievous gang of bandit dwarfs.
The dwarfs are runaway design-engineers who've stolen a map of the world's various portals (time passages in need of closure) from the Supreme Being (i.e., God) and hope to travel through them to rob treasures from various historic periods. The ensemble consists of Randall (David Rappaport), the leader; Fidgit (Kenny "R2D2" Baker); Stutter (Malcolm Dixon); Wally (Jack Purus); and Vermin (Tiny Ross). Rappaport's Randall is quite the charmer (and the role paved the way for his presence in "The Bride" and the cult television series, "The Wizard"). He pulls Kevin along for the journey when the Supreme Being's Pythonish head tracks the dwarfs through his bedroom and into another period, granting the boy a chance (albeit of frantic circumstance) to attain the exotic action he so yearns.
Initially, the misfits fall into the Napoleonic era, where they attempt to steal from the Emperor (Ian Holm). More by accident than plan, they end up performing a song-and-dance routine for him. Kevin watches the bumbling affair in awe, but no sooner does it reach its pinnacle, he and the gang are off again (with their treasure load), sliding into the time of Robin Hood (Cleese) and his less-than-merry-men. Kevin thereafter stumbles into a separate portal, allowing him to meet none other than King Agamemnon (Sean Connery), who just so happens to be battling a Minotaur.
Kevin inadvertently helps the charismatic king slay the beast, and a father-son relationship blossoms, but once more, the dwarfs intervene and drag Kevin onward, this time landing upon the Titanic, shortly before its fateful sinking.
All the while, the film's villain, the spell-casting Evil (David Warner), keeps a watchful eye on the band, desiring the map for his own, so that he may change the world's dynamics to spite the Supreme Being. With his dim-witted henchmen, he hurls our anti-heroes into the Time of Legends, where they meet both a hapless troll and his wife (Peter Vaughan and Katherine Helmond) and then a ship-capped Tor Johnson-like giant (Ian Muir). These dangerous encounters lead the gang to Evil's realm, and from there, a test between good and Evil ensues, until the Supreme Being makes a memorable appearance, transforming himself into an officious old man (Sir Ralph Richardson) and settling matters for once and all, or so it seems.
Throughout the escapades, a fair sum of dry humor ensues, especially in the Napoleon and Robin Hood segments (that latter sprinkled with socialistic quips). There's also a goofy couple (Palin and Shelley Duvall) who reappear in different time sectors, their amorous unions spoiled each time by the dwarfs' rambunctious entrances. Kevin generally steers the men in the right direction, though Randall always remains its resourceful leader, as well as the film's prime scene thief.
"Time Bandits" is basically played for fun, but it's not devoid of philosophy, explaining how good and evil are part of life's plan: a test imposed upon us by the Supreme Being. Its varying trips also grant us an informative, if not sometimes skewed view of history, without ever radically rewriting it. If anything, Gilliam and Palin's screenplay essays how historical adventure is the catalyst for many of the fictional ones we've come to embrace. It also tells us that from the past, we can better enjoy the present and the future.
"Time Bandits'" ambiance is distinctly British and unmistakably Gilliam, stirred with Whovian seasoning, though with grander effects than typical Python outings. The effects are still pleasantly old-school, as are the elaborate costumes, particularly Warner's: a regal concoction of steel, bone and crimson cape, worthy of any Conan adversary.
"Time Bandits" concludes on an open note and could have spawned an immediate sequel or possibly even a television series, though one could argue that "Voyagers!" was an unofficial offshoot. It's ending nearly implies the likes of "Wizard of Oz", "Invaders from Mars" and "Phantasm", but there's a twist (thanks to Kevin's trusty Polaroid), which verifies that what transpired was real and will, in fact, carry on, as long as we, like Kevin, dare conjure the courage to look backward.