If you're going to create an entire universe—in six days, no less—it pays to have a set of blueprints. Enter the map, God's little crib sheet covering every corner of his vast creation, from everything that was to everything that will be to everything that might be.
The map also discloses the location of various "time holes"—botches in God's plan that have made openings in the fabric of reality. The dwarves have been given this map so that they can go and fix the holes, but instead, they use it as a means of escape after they've committed robberies. In the process, they get the map dangerously close to Evil's pointy claws.
That makes the map something of a plot device. It's kind of like the DeLorean in the Back to the Future movies, or H. G. Wells' original Time Machine. It's there to make time travel possible, and Gilliam has given it a little fairy tale panache to make it cool. But basically, it's here because there really couldn't be any movie without it.
At times, the map morphs into something a little different—a MacGuffin, a plot device designed to set a story in motion. It doesn't matter what the MacGuffin is. It only maters that the characters want it. (Alfred Hitchcock coined the term, and there's a nifty little movie about it here.)
Prominent MacGuffins in other movies include the ring in The Lord of the Rings, the title bird in The Maltese Falcon, whatever's in that briefcase in Pulp Fiction, and every single thing that Indiana Jones has gone after. Gilliam is kind of obvious about the map's purpose as a plot device since he never actually explains what it is (though the dwarves are dumb and greedy enough to go after it, regardless).
Stuff is bad. Just ask this movie.
One of the big, underlying messages of Time Bandits is that an obsession with stuff leaves humanity soulless, dull, and possibly evil. We see the effects of materialism on Kevin's parents, with their inane obsession with kitchen appliances; on Evil, with his focus on "lasers, 8 o'clock, day one!"; and perhaps most importantly in Your Money or Your Life, the idiotic game show spewing out of the TV in Kevin's house.
We're not sure what the rules of the game are, what the contestants win, or even if there's any point to the whole thing. We don't much care. The empty chattering of its host puts us to sleep in the worst possible way. It's the kind of sleep after which you wake up with your wallet empty and your shoes missing.
As far as Time Bandits is concerned, Your Money or Your Life is emblematic of exactly the kind of world that Evil wants to make: a world of people obsessed with empty stuff, constantly sporting creepily large grins and unable to think about or discuss anything but this fabulous prize or that one-of-a-kind deal. It's a world where everyone is an accountant or a used-car salesman, where machines reign supreme, and where happiness is a surface emotion, used only to hide how miserable everyone is.
Uhh, that doesn't sound totally unlike our real world…
But anyway, that's probably why when Evil tempts the dwarves with the Most Fabulous Object in the World, he makes it look exactly like something on that cruddy little show.
Note the title of the show: Your Money or Your Life. That's actually pretty much the literal choice people have in this movie: if you're all about money, you lose your life (sometimes metaphorically and sometimes literally), while if you want to live a real life, you have to stop focusing on money and stuff all the time.
Gilliam plays with our sense of reality in Time Bandits, careening us from one era to the next before finishing the movie up in a giant metaphor brought to life: the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness.
But once that's all wrapped up, Gilliam seems to fall back on one of the hoariest clichés in moviedom: the old "it was all a dream" gag. Kevin wakes up in his smoky bedroom, just in time to be pulled out by a firefighter and plopped on his front lawn.
That's what it seems like, anyway. And yet Kevin still has all of the pictures he took on the journey stuck in his satchel, which seem like tangible evidence that all was real. Then there's the piece of pure Evil in the toaster that literally smokes his mom and pop. Those details throw a little water on the notion that it was all a dream, suggesting instead that God put Kevin back home knowing what he had accomplished, maybe to supply some of that hard-earned wisdom to the world.
We never actually see the Most Fabulous Object in the World, mostly because it doesn't actually exist, but the dwarves sure are keen on getting it. Evil uses the idea to lure them into the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, and once there, he figures—correctly—that he can nab the map from them without much of a fuss.
What's telling isn't what the object actually is but instead how Evil chooses to present it. He pulls out the showroom from that inane game show Kevin's parents watch—complete with the fiendishly grinning host, and with Kevin's parents done up in spangly showbiz duds—to lure in the dwarves. It's crass, it's shallow, it's materialistic. Basically, it's everything the Most Fabulous Object in the World should not be.
Seriously. We're pretty sure the ultimate treasure in the universe wouldn't resemble a set of kitchen appliances.
But that's the way Evil thinks—and unfortunately, it's the way the dwarves think, too. Only Kevin sees through the ruse, making this simple non-object a very subtle way of commenting on the things we value, and why. The dwarves figure that out too late. Luckily, they've got a smart kid watching their backs.
When we first see Napoleon Bonaparte, he's sitting in a theater in the Italian town of Castiglione while the performers do their thing just for him, bombs are dropping, the French army is running rampant, and the horrors of war are just outside. You can smell the desperation on the cast: the smiles plastered over their looks of sheer horror as they try to amuse their conqueror before he throws them all to the wolves.
Gilliam comes back to this idea in other movies, like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, so clearly it's a thing with him. We think he's getting at one of the less pleasant sides of being an artist. Whether you act, write, paint, or make movies, you're a creative type. And if you try to make a living at being a creative type, you'd better get used to living a little desperately. There's no money in it, and for every rich and famous painter, there's 30 million other painters eating ramen and living in a fifth-floor efficiency in the worst part of town.
That comes on top of your basic artistic insecurities. The performers in the theater are desperate for the approval of their audience—they'll do anything just to hear that Napoleon likes them—and these feelings match the feelings of anyone who ever set foot on a stage and asked for approval.
Also, um, there's the fact that the theater here is being totally perverted to make Napoleon happy. Like, these performers are being forced to risk their lives to make some d-bag Frenchie laugh. That sounds like fun, huh?
"Deus ex machina" literally means "god out of the machine." It's a term that refers to a moment in a narrative when you can feel the author's hand doing things arbitrarily.
It's like this: imagine you're watching an action movie, and your hero is at some point totally backed into a corner, surrounded by enemies, with no hope of escape. What happens then? Surprise: somebody with a big gun appears totally at random and shoots up the baddies, freeing our hero at the last minute.
You know the drill. We all tolerate it, but sometimes you just want to roll your eyes.
The funny thing about Time Bandits isn't that it makes use of that device, because it does. The funny thing is that it does it so literally. In this film, God actually comes down from heaven and smites the villain just as he's about to ice the heroes for good.
Moreover, this device actually works here because, hey, we really are dealing with a cosmic battle between good and evil. It's a playful gag, changing the rules of what a dramatic climax can be, without losing the feeling of an epic finale. The Pythons are having their cake and eating it, too, riffing on why you shouldn't use deus ex machina while clearly reveling in their use of it.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
The hero's journey is about as clear here as it is in any movie ever made, right down to the possibility that it could all be a dream. Like any good hero's journey, this one starts in a very mundane world. In fact, that's kind of the point. This world is not just mundane, it's oppressively mundane, complete with plastic on the furniture and inane yammerings about kitchen appliances on some game show. Something needs to bust out of someone's closet real quick.
Terry Gilliam is a lot of things, but subtle isn't one of them. The call to adventure literally comes galloping out of the bedroom closest, first in the form of a knight on horseback, and then in the form of six wee men who have stolen God's "how to travel through time" map. They promptly start pushing against the bedroom wall, which conveniently gives way to gradually reveal a corridor moving off into the distance and, yeah, we've got ourselves a call to adventure here.
Are you kidding? Have you seen this kid's parents? There's no refusal of the call here. Push faster, dwarves.
The mentor seems to be Randall, the self-appointed leader of the dwarves, who allows Kevin to come with them on their robberies—though he gives lousy advice.
The threshold is crossed pretty literally, right after the call to adventure. The dwarves keep pushing at that wall until it opens up into a vast, empty space, ultimately leading to the first of many very interesting places and times.
For the dwarves, stealing as much as they can from history's most noted figures is enough for them...until they hear about the Most Fabulous Object in the World, which becomes the object of their new quest.
You notice we said "dwarves" here, and not Kevin, who is the hero of the journey. Being wise beyond his years, Kevin knows that the journey is the important thing, not the destination. So he takes care to enjoy himself, learn, and grow, passing a number of tests thrown at him almost by default.
The innermost cave is the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, where Evil awaits to nab that map. We're pretty sure the dwarves have failed their ultimate test just by showing up here. We'll see if Kevin can pull them out of the fire.
The ordeal in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness is a pretty tall order. First, the dwarves have to break out of the cage they've been stuck in. Then, Kevin has to try to steal the map while the dwarves go for reinforcements. Then, said reinforcements have to try to take down Evil before the Supreme Being has finally seen enough and orders everyone out of the pool.
Has Kevin earned a reward? We'd say he has. Being a little kid, Kevin does a sight better than most grownups would in the same situation.
Luckily, God has a magical shortcut back to where Kevin started, along with a convenient way of making him wonder if it was all a dream. The kid has been through a lot—there's no need to make him walk home.
Up Kevin comes, pulled out of the house by a suspiciously familiar fireman and finding himself returned to the spot where he started. That's not necessarily a benefit, considering the kid's parents, but, hey, how many other kids can say they traveled through time?
The elixir is a bit tricky here since it involves a piece of pure Evil in a toaster. It's even more problematic because it turns Kevin's parents into smoking little holes on their lawn, which would normally be considered a very bad thing, indeed. But his parents are such self-absorbed swine that their fate has a certain poetic justice to it. Plus, we've seen that Kevin is pretty darn good at taking care of himself. So maybe the elixir has freed him from the shackles of some less-than-great parents—an unorthodox reward at best, but fitting considering that this movie is a long way from business as usual.
The only thing consistent about the setting is its inconsistency: we go from 1980s suburban England to Italy at the time of the Napoleonic conquest to Robin Hood-era England to ancient Greece to the Titanic almost as quickly as the editor can splice them together.
Heck, the movie doesn't even limit itself to actual history: it climaxes in a place called the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, in a little-seen corner of the map.
So, what does all that mean—besides feeding our suspicion that we're in the hands of a director with serious ADHD?
We suspect it means that the universe is a wild, chaotic place, and you never know what's going to come at you next. More importantly, the Supreme Being seems to want it that way. It makes things awfully interesting, after all, and it lets brave souls like Kevin test themselves against challenges they never saw coming. What better way to help people improve than by showing them just how wonderful—and yes, terrifying—the Supreme Being's creation can be?
As a counterpoint, look at the way Evil wants to remake the universe, which he's happy to explain to his minions at the drop of a hat:
EVIL: If I were creating the world, I wouldn't mess about with butterflies and daffodils. I would have started with lasers, 8 o'clock, day one!
Evil is excited by accounting, computers, technology, and order—none of which sounds nearly as interesting as robbing Napoleon Bonaparte blind. Sure, chaos is scary, what with giants trampling down on you and ships hitting icebergs and milquetoast living legends handing all your ill-gotten gains to the poor. But that sure beats the alternative, which is dull, predictable, and utterly soulless. (Sorry, Silicon Valley.)
Technically speaking, the film uses the third-person omniscient technique—the fast-track way of delivering information quickly and easily. If you don't have a specific stylistic reason to try another technique, this works the best, and most films are happy to use it as their default setting.
On the surface, Time Bandits follows that formula, cutting back and forth between time and place as the story needs. And yet, in almost every case, there's one specific character at the center of it all: our hero Kevin, who is either directly involved in the action or close enough to effectively hear what's going on. The only exceptions are a couple of scenes with Evil, which provide us with some need-to-know stuff (like Evil's plans for the map). Otherwise, it's all Kevin, all the time, and that means that in most ways, this baby is a third-person limited kind of film.
If Time Bandits fits into any specific category, it's fantasy: the map is essentially magic; monsters and giants are actual things; mythic figures like Agamemnon are presented alongside legends like Robin Hood and historical figures like Napoleon; and whenever reality gets in the way of the story, it's jettisoned in favor of the fantastic.
The film is also a fairy tale. Fantasy and fairy tales are natural siblings, and while this one often treads down the darker side of the path (that part where kids get burned up in ovens so witches can eat them), it understands the landscape pretty well. There are ogres, after all. And dark fortresses. And lessons about being brave and staying true to yourself in wild lands where magic is around every corner.
Finally, since this comes from the Monty Python boys, we can't ignore the funnies. Everything in the film has a slightly absurd bent, and while the scenario itself is taken seriously, Gilliam and his crew take the time to remind us how foolish these characters can be—and, by extension, how foolish we all are—while giving us a fistful of giggles. That's just what these boys do.
There's not a whole lot to say about the title, folks. The term "time bandits" describes the dwarves and what they do—they travel through time to rob people. And while there's a lot more going on in the film than that, we'd be lying if we said that title didn't grab our attention. "Bandits who travel through time? That's awesome. Where do they go? Who do they steal from? Do they ever get caught?"
That's enough to pump up ticket sales from curious moviegoers, which is the first and most important purpose of a title for a mainstream movie, besides helping you find it in your Netflix queue.
We're pretty fond of the ending to this one: it's not quite a Twilight Zone twist, but it's definitely the kind of ending that leaves you with some interesting questions instead of wrapping everything up with a neat little bow.
After finally helping to vanquish Evil, Kevin returns to his bedroom while his house is apparently on fire. It seems as if the whole thing was a dream—except that the kid is rescued by a fireman who looks suspiciously like King Agamemnon, and when he reaches into his satchel, he finds all the Polaroids from his adventure intact.
We're pretty sure it's not all been a dream, and yet there are still some questions lingering in the air. Is God just covering his tracks by making it all seem like a dream, even if it wasn't? Hmm.
We also have a big, weird finale, during which Kevin's parents find that last piece of concentrated Evil in their toaster and get blown up the moment they touch it. It's a shocking moment—Kevin is sure taken aback—but it also suggests that Evil is claiming its own. These two people, who are obsessed with their gadgets and gizmos and just don't care much about other people, including their own freaking son, finally find out what's really lying in the heart of their newfangled toaster, getting turned into a pair of little greasy spots on the ground as a result.
Well, yeah, sort of, though it does leave Kevin completely befuddled and more or less on his own. That's probably okay, though. He was on his own for most of the movie, and he seemed a lot happier that way than when he was at his parents' place. And with that fireman who rescued him giving him a friendly wink before driving off, we think that our young hero's adventures may just be beginning. Adventures that hopefully involve more than just surviving foster care and child protective services.
This is a very scary movie at some points: the tagline on the poster says it's "all the dreams you've ever had, and not just the good ones," which suggests we're in for a freaky-deaky ride every now and again.
Once you get past the weirdness, though, Time Bandits is pretty benign. It was intended for children, after all, and with a young boy in the lead, we're not going to have a lot of sexy time here. Violence stays low-key, too, which is pretty amazing considering the fact that we visit monsters, Greek warriors, the sinking of the Titanic, and Napoleon's very messy conquest of Italy. But the gruesome stuff is kept to a minimum, or at least left safely off-screen, where we don't have to look it in the face.