Kevin—last name never given—is a precocious young boy from England who gets swept up in some dwarves' heartfelt efforts to run away from God. He's kind of an everyman—or, we guess, everyboy—but what happens to him, as you can tell from that first sentence, is pretty extraordinary.
Let's dig in.
Kevin is a bright boy and very imaginative. He knows something about history, which suggests that he likes to read, and he tends to be very enthusiastic about his interests, as when he gushes about Greek soldiers when we first meet him:
KEVIN: Dad, did you know that the ancient Greek warriors had to learn 44 different ways of unarmed combat? They were trying to kill people 26 different ways with their bare hands.
The kid's dull (and frankly kind of creepy) parents don't listen, of course. No one really listens to him, even the dwarves who really like him. But Kevin just shrugs and moves on. He's used to it.
Translation: Kevin is a very lonely boy. He doesn't seem to have any friends, and we wouldn't want to go back to his parents, either. That doesn't leave much for him to lose. Agamemnon—perhaps the only person in the whole movie interested in Kevin as a person—hears all about Kevin's lack of interest in returning home during one of the more telling exchanges in the film:
KEVIN: You know, I never, ever want to go back.
AGAMEMNON: Don't you want to see all your friends again?
KEVIN: No, thanks.
AGAMEMNON: To be in your own home, to be with your own father and mother?
That's a kid who's had his fill of other people. He'd dearly love to be with folks who understand him, but he's fed up with trying to explain to people where he's coming from.
Quiet, imaginative, and lonely? Kevin is the perfect kid to embark upon an epic quest to see the universe.
Despite his young age, Kevin carries a fair amount of wisdom with him. He's not all that interested in money, for example, and while the prospect of robbing the great figures of history is awfully exciting, it's the experience itself that gets him going, not the gold and jewels. He says as much after the team disentangles itself from Robin Hood:
KEVIN: I'll never get the chance to meet Robin Hood again.
RANDALL: Oh, stop moaning. He's obviously a dangerous man, unbalanced if you ask me. Giving away what isn't even his!
KEVIN: That's what Robin Hood always did. Even I know that.
RANDALL: Of course, you know it all.
KEVIN: He was one of my heroes.
RANDALL: Heroes! Heroes! What do they know about a day's work?
Clearly, Kevin isn't in it for the Benjamins—something his supposedly older and wiser companions could stand to learn from him. He's a kid who worries more about his friends than about his wallet, and he gets excited about details besides price tags.
It's this lack of materialism, in fact, that allows Kevin to figure out how to escape the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness. While there, he studies his old pictures and finds the big time hole precisely because he's not been mooning about how rich he could have been. This quality also allows Kevin to fend off all of Evil's minions—keeping the universe safe in the process—until the dwarves can show up with the cavalry.
Kevin is clever and self-sufficient, though he never has to do anything any other regular kid wouldn't. His wisdom is just an offshoot of his self-sufficiency and lack of greed; he just has a good head on his shoulders. That's one of the reasons why we're not too worried when he loses his parents at the end. This kid seems to be doing a pretty good job of taking care of himself.
This film is all about a battle between good and evil. Kevin's adventures test him—and show us what he can do when no one is around to explain the rules. Like all of us, he has to figure out how to get through life for himself. He emerges with flying colors, we'd say—though like all of us, that doesn't buy him a whole lot more than mild approval and an urge to keep going. The Supreme Being says as much at the end, when he and the dwarves get ready to return to creation:
FIDGIT: What about my friend, sir? Can he come with us?
SUPREME BEING: No, of course not. This isn't a school outing.
FIDGIT: But, sir, he deserves something. I mean, without him—
SUPREME BEING: Oh, don't go on about it. He's got to stay here to carry on the fight.
The Supreme Being's words are kind of dismissive, but there seems to be a purpose behind them. We're pretty sure Kevin is up for the challenge; in fact, he makes a good example for us to follow. He tumbles into adventures without knowing the rules, and he finds a way not only to hang in there, but also to enjoy the experience from time to time as well.
Nice going, kid.
The dwarves in this movie are given an artifact that has unlimited power, and yet they use it for such petty and small things that it's kind of hilarious. Seriously, you've got something that will literally take you anywhere in time and space—you're able to see great events unfold and famous historical figures making decisions upon which the human race itself turns—and all you're interested in doing is ripping people off?
The situation is doubly humorous if you remember that the dwarves used to work for God. They created trees and shrubs—actually created them—and all they care about now is a big chunk of change.
Randall is the embodiment of the dwarves' foolish, materialistic philosophy. He's also the embodiment of all the trouble this philosophy gets the gang into. Randall is greedy, arrogant, and not half as smart as he thinks he is. He's the guy with a plan for everything, but not the slightest clue.
Kevin, naturally, picks up on Randall's flaws immediately and confronts him about them all on more than one occasion—most notably on the deck of the Titanic:
KEVIN: The map? I don't understand you, Randall. You've got something really brilliant like that, and you're just wasting it.
RANDALL: I wouldn't call this exactly "wasting" it.
KEVIN: Why couldn't you leave me where I was happy?
RANDALL: Because when you hear what I've got planned, you're gonna be a lot happier.
Of course, Kevin isn't happier. Randall—a guy working for God, who has actually seen behind the curtain—can only think of bigger stuff, better stuff, and more stuff as the ultimate meaning of life.
Randall is also very keen on maintaining his leadership position. Wally gives him a lot of blowback, and the other dwarves challenge him from time to time as well. Randall gambles on their greed and general lack of organization to fend them off. As long as they do what he says, he's more or less happy.
On the plus side, Randall is loyal enough to his friends, and when push comes to shove, he's willing to stand up to Evil in order to save the universe. Of course, he needs a little prodding from Kevin first, but eventually he does step up and do the right thing. He deserves a little credit for that...though as leaders go, we wouldn't trust him with a burnt-out match.
For every brilliant leader, there's a second-in-command who doesn't quite like being lower on the totem pole. And for every less-than-brilliant leader, there's a second-in-command idly toying with murdering him in his sleep.
Enter Wally, the guy who thinks he could be doing a much better job than the guy in the big chair—and who never hesitates to let everyone know it. We never see what they were like before running off with the map, but it's very clear that Wally doesn't much like the job that Randall is doing:
WALLY: Horseflesh wouldn't have got us into this.
RANDALL: Horseflesh is dead.
WALLY: Then give me the map. I'm taking over!
RANDALL: Get off me! Get—
Wally is itching for a change in leadership, and, of course, he thinks he's the guy for the job. That doesn't make him any more qualified than Randall, in all likelihood, but, of course, he thinks differently. You can see his self-regard when they break out of the cage in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness. He's all about performing dangerous tricks after escaping the cage instead of doing the wise thing and just getting to safety.
Dude has got a hot temper, too, and he's not the kind of guy who will just sit around and fume. When he gets angry, he acts, and while his actions are usually pretty futile, you can't argue that his heart isn't in them. His anger at Randall's leadership, for example, causes him to throw a skull at the invisible barrier, revealing the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness:
RANDALL: We've made it, lads! We're here!
WALLY: You're mad, Randall! Your brain's gone. Do you know that?
RANDALL: I promise you, this is it! We are here!
WALLY: We're nowhere, Randall!
That puts Wally in the same boat as the guy he thinks he's so much better than—but, like Randall, he's also loyal to his friends and appreciative of what Kevin brings to the table. He never says so directly, but he also never turns his back on them.
The arrogance. The superiority complex. The boiling resentment against God and all creation.
This guy may not be Satan, exactly, but he sure acts like him. Oh, yeah—that's because he's the personification of all evil—though thanks to the screenwriters and a very funny performance from David Warner, Evil is slightly less menacing than he might otherwise have been.
Evil has got an evil scheme, of course—that's kind of what evil villains do. And he delivers it in the kind of booming Doctor Doom voice of any garden-variety megalomaniac. Here's a standard quote from one of his various evil-plotting scenes:
EVIL: When I have the map, I will be free, and the world will be different, because I have understanding.
ROBERT: Understanding of what, master?
EVIL: Digital watches. And soon I shall have understanding of videocassette recorders and car telephones. And when I have understanding of them, I shall have understanding of computers. And when I have understanding of computers, I shall be the Supreme Being!
It's all pretty standard. Like Satan, Evil here wants to wrest the planet away from God and make it his own. The more of creation he controls, the more he feels he's taken from God.
Underneath all that arrogance, though, Evil is also pretty clearly very insecure. When things don't go his way, he's full of excuses—as, for example, when one of his (soon-to-be-exploded) minions asks why he remains trapped in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness:
EVIL: Why have I let the Supreme Being keep me here...in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness?
ROBERT: Because you—
EVIL: Oh, shut up. I'm speaking rhetorically.
ROBERT: Of course.
EVIL: I let him keep me here in order to lull him into a false sense of security.
ROBERT: Ah, clever, clever.
EVIL: When I have the map, I will be free.
Hey, the dude's got an image to uphold.
That said, Evil is still pretty much a match for the whole gang. He tricks them into the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness very easily, and then he takes the map without a second thought. Only Kevin seems to have what it takes to consistently defy him, and even he has his limits. It takes a literal act of God to stop Evil.
That's a bad guy we can definitely respect—and he's still pretty darn funny, too.
It's always a little dicey getting God involved in a story. After all, stories are based on not knowing what's going to happen next. Will the hero succeed? Will the hero survive? We like that suspense.
God, though, always comes through, and while that might be pretty comforting in a religious context, it tends to suck the excitement out of any story that involves him.
And yet, here he is, either chasing the dwarves to the next time hole or taking on the air of a befuddled British banker who seems to be a little confused about it all.
We're guessing that last part is a bit of a rope-a-dope. The dude is God, after all, and as God, he probably knows exactly, precisely what he's doing. When you're looking at the film for the first time, it can be a bit of a head-scratcher. Why all the chasing? Why the doom-laden voice? Can't the big guy upstairs just nab the map back whenever he likes?
Turns out, it's all part of the master plan: moving the dwarves from historical point A to historical point B is a means for God to test his creation. Said creation is Evil, of course, and the whole movie involves God's elaborate plot to see exactly what Evil can do. God says as much at the end when, having swooped down and called the whole thing quits, he explains in a vague way what exactly he's been doing all this time.
In fact, that vagueness is why we ultimately put God here instead of in the "Symbols and Tropes" section. As long as God is chasing down the dwarves, he's pretty much a plot device, but when he finally drops the hammer on Evil and transforms into a rather elderly banker type, he turns out to be kind of emotionless and easily distracted.
We're not sure if that's an act or not, though it certainly makes it easy for God to dodge those awkward questions we'd all like to ask him:
KEVIN: Yes, why does there have to be Evil?
SUPREME BEING: I think it has something to do with free will.
It also gives God the air of a slightly befuddled university professor, very distracted by all his duties. Even his punishments feel kind of by the numbers, as if he were a middle manager reading from a list. Check him out at the very end, for example, when he's preparing a steaming cup of wrath for the dwarves:
SUPREME BEING: I should do something very extroverted and vengeful to you. Honestly, I'm too tired. So, I think I'll transfer you to the undergrowth department, brackens, more shrubs, that sort of thing...with a 19 percent cut in salary, backdated to the beginning of time.
RANDALL: Oh, thank you, sir.
SUPREME BEING: Yes, well, I am the nice one.
Again, we're not sure if it's an act or not, but the dude is God, and he doesn't have to tell us. At least he's good enough to pay attention sometimes...and to literally deliver us from Evil when we need him to.
Agamemnon's name is mentioned only once, and we have to infer a lot based on the stuff that's going on around him. He appears to be fighting the Minotaur when we first see him—something that Theseus should be doing, not Agamemnon—while the Trojan War, where he actually appears in legend, is long over. So, we need to do a little detective work to figure out who he is, though once we do, he gets very, very interesting.
On the surface, Agamemnon is everything you'd want a father figure to be. He's brave and kind and wise and strong, and he treats Kevin like an equal. He's clearly quite keen to keep the boy, too. Had the dwarves not snatched Kevin away again, he would have made Kevin his heir:
AGAMEMNON: I have decreed that this boy shall remain here with us in our city. Furthermore, he shall from this day forward be my own son, and heir to the throne of Mycenae.
That's a pretty awesome deal for a kid whose real father is more interested in the latest toaster than anything Kevin has to say. Agamemnon represents the great promise of Kevin's adventure: the chance to find someone who loves him, who gets where he's coming from, and who wants to spend as much time as possible with him.
But there's a darker side to it all, and we only see it from hints out of the corners in the film. Gilliam and his team didn't need to make this dude Agamemnon, after all. He could have been Theseus or Perseus or any other Greek hero, and the arc of the story wouldn't have changed at all. But they went with Agamemnon...and there's a very specific reason why.
If you notice, this dude is not on the best of terms with his queen, Clytemnestra, who spends every scene she's in giving the man a serious skunk eye. She doesn't like him, and if you know your Trojan War stories, the reasons become obvious. Before setting out for Troy, Agamemnon earned himself a bucketful of wrath from the goddess Artemis. In order to get her off of his back, he had to sacrifice his daughter to her.
That's hardcore, folks. And don't think Clytemnestra didn't forget it. In fact, in mythology, shortly after Agamemnon returns from Troy, she totally axes him to death in his bath—and that's likely where he's headed shortly after the dwarves take their leave. Now think about it: if she's cranky enough to kill him for sacrificing their child, how angry is she going to be when he shows up with a whole new kid? And then claims the kid is going to inherit the throne?
The dwarves probably spared Kevin a messy death, and while Agamemnon is the perfect dad for him, his less-than-perfect-dad status is clearly going to come back to bite him.
If you want the formal rundown on Agamemnon's mythic history, Shmoop has the hookup, as always.
There are short men, there are really short men, and then there's Napoleon Bonaparte. Historically speaking, the dude wasn't actually that short—British propaganda played up his small stature way beyond the reality—but Time Bandits plays pretty fast and loose with history and never lets the facts get in the way of a good joke.
Napoleon is the first in a series of historical figures in the film, famous people who are visited by heroes, robbed by them in some cases, and then are never to be seen again. In that sense, Napoleon makes for colorful scenery—he's a guy who livens up this period of history but who doesn't have much to do beyond that.
What we do know about him, however, says an awful lot. As we said, he's short. And as the originator of the Napoleon complex, the man is bothered a lot by his height, causing friction between him and his very tall generals, for starters:
NAPOLEON: Don't stand so close to me, Neguy! I've told you about that before. You on one side and him on the other, it's like being on the bottom of a bloody well!
As it turns out, that's the only thing the dude really cares about. It's probably even why he's engaged in the conquest of Italy in the first place:
NAPOLEON: You know, I come to conquer Italy...because I thought they were all small, you know? I heard they was really tiny guys.
Which leads us to our second point: Napoleon is an instigator of chaos and maker of an incredibly large mess. This part of the movie is characterized by explosions and gunfire, all of it orchestrated by Napoleon, and he shows no intention of slowing down. His generals say as much during the puppet show:
NEGUY: Monsieur Commander...I think that the mayor of Castiglione and his council...would like very much to surrender now, please…Mon Commander, they are very keen to surrender. They have been here eight hours.
So nothing's gonna give...at least until the Punch and Judy show is done.
It's an absurd and rather dark detail, but it also sets the stage for one of the big themes of the movie: chaos is a part of life, and while it might be messy (even lethal), it definitely beats the alternative that Evil has in mind. Napoleon is just the first object lesson of that. You'd better believe he won't be the last.
John Cleese claims he based Robin Hood on Prince Charles: a polite, bland, super awkward guy forced to interact with the common folk as part of his work.
As with Napoleon, he exists as a kind of punchline. We all think of Robin Hood as a swashbuckling hero: the guy who takes action when liberty is threatened, swinging through windows and sword fighting the Sheriff of Nottingham when he's not planting arrows into their targets from 1,000 yards away. (Like so.)
This is so not that guy. This dude is like your homeroom teacher trying so hard to be pals with everybody, but since he's not very good at it, he turns what should be a normal conversation into something weird. Watch this Robin Hood try to talk to the dwarves about their haul:
ROBIN HOOD: And you're a robber, too? How long have you been a robber?
STRUTTER: Four foot one.
ROBIN HOOD: Good Lord! Jolly good! Four foot one? Well, th-th-th-that is a long time, isn't it?
But, as usual, there's a larger point to all of it. Since Robin Hood ends up relieving the dwarves of their gold, he demonstrates that their schemes and plans don't amount to a whole lot, and with the late-inning revelation that the Supreme Being is watching it all very carefully, Robin Hood's role becomes a lot more apparent.
"Man plans, God laughs," goes the saying, and this bland little prince of thieves is here to make sure the dwarves understand that.
Never has the phrase "twu wuv" felt more appropriate than with these two, who show up in two different incarnations in the film and are named Vincent and Pansy both times.
First, our lovers appear in the Middle Ages, on their way to France after a long period of being apart. Then, they show up again on the Titanic, still upper-class, still very much in love, and still dealing with the fact that they're really two very silly people.
Their idiocy stems from their attempts to add some poetry to their love, to frame it in the flowery words of true poetry and elevate it to something fantastic. They don't have to do that, of course. Love is love no matter how gilded the language, and while they're clearly quite happy to be together, their attempts to blow it all into painfully self-conscious poetry come across as foolish in the extreme.
To add insult to injury, Vincent seems to be suffering from a series of embarrassing—and very unromantic—personal problems that make it really tough to make like Cyrano de Bergerac. He fights his way through as best he can, but it definitely throws a bucket of water on the romance stuff, like when he tries to woo his ladylove on the carriage ride to the shore.
VINCENT: Oh, good mistress Pansy, I could not have ridden faster. Four horses have I exhausted this day from Nottingham.
PANSY: Oh, the way you leapt to my chamber, so full of...manliness!
VINCENT: I could scarce restrain the rushing of my feet. These 12 long years have been like chains that bound me.
PANSY: And the personal problem?
VINCENT: Much, much better. And now we will ride full tilt to Dover, and there embark for France.
PANSY: Oh, you don't have to wear the "special."
VINCENT: No, no, I don't have to wear the "special" anymore.
It's tough to spout poetry at your ladylove when you've got a boil on the end of your nose, or when you're periodically stricken with some kind of seizure that requires huge amounts of fruit.
Like the other cameos in the film, we suspect that these two are supposed to remind us how foolish we all are, and that perhaps we shouldn't take ourselves quite so seriously. Nowhere is this truer than when you're in love, which is why these two keep fumbling about.
Time Bandits doesn't mock the love of these two, to be sure. It mocks their efforts to make it larger than life. They're punished because they're silly and don't realize it, suggesting that a little more humility and the ability to laugh at themselves might have served them a lot better.
Well, folks, what we have here is a literal pair of monsters: an ogre and his wife who enjoy eating old shoes, boots, and occasional sentient beings who wander into their fishing nets. As with the other cameos in the film, they're mainly meant as a joke, in addition to being an obstacle that the gang needs to get around.
It's a tough balance to be funny but also threatening. Gilliam manages it first by giving the ogre all kinds of health problems that his loving but insistent wife makes sure he takes care of:
MRS. OGRE: Here we are, darling. Come on. And the ointment for the leg.
WINSTON: I grew too fast when I was young. That was the problem.
MRS. OGRE: You've been overdoing it a bit, dear.
WINSTON: You try being beastly and terrifying when you can only get one hour's sleep a night because your back hurts, and you daren't cough in case you pull a muscle.
MRS. OGRE: But you are horrible, dear.
WINSTON: You're just sayin' that.
MRS. OGRE: And gargle. Come on now, there's a good fellow.
These two are like every old married couple you've ever met: gently bickering, intimately familiar with each other, and absolutely devoted after a long, long period of time.
In light of that, their status as cannibals and monsters seems almost quaint. They're threatening, definitely, but at least they're kind of nice about it. It's a tricky balance, but it does make them real characters instead of just cutouts, and while we're not sorry they get chucked overboard, we're awfully glad they still get to be together.
Strutter (Malcolm Dixon), Og (Mike Edmonds), Fidgit (Kenny Baker), and Vermin (Tiny Ross) are the remainder of Randall's gang: former employees of the Supreme Being who thought it would be great to run off with the map on a cosmic joy ride. They don't have much in the way of personalities—not with Randall and Wally duking it out for the head spot. Vermin eats, Fidgit smiles, Strutter snarks, and Og isn't bright at all.
So, why dwarves? Well, for starters, bringing in little people is a good way to hook kids into the story. It lets Kevin become the natural leader—as opposed to Randall, who's always demanding respect he hasn't earned—and it lets kids in the audience feel bigger than the ostensible grownups dragging them along on their adventures.
On a more meta note, casting these performers gave them a chance to play real characters instead of relegating them to sad careers of permanent Oompa-Loompadom. Turns out, these guys are pretty darn good actors, and Gilliam was clearly happy to let them show us what they were made of.
Beyond that, the dwarves don't do much but bicker and fight...which is pretty much why they're here. The heart of comedy is pratfalls—the wonderful moment when a man meets a banana peel—and Time Bandits gets a lot of mileage out of watching these guys devolve into vicious slap-fights once their harebrained schemes go wrong.
But there's more to these guys than just "little things hitting each other," as one of our favorite French emperors once said. Are you wondering why there are six of them, and not seven or five or 23?
Well, that number coincidentally happens to be the same number of men in Monty Python, and as observers have noted, their personalities match those of the Python troupe: the self-important Randall is Cleese (who has a reputation for wanting to take charge of everything), the kind, quiet Fidgit is Palin (who everyone claims is wonderful to work with), and so on.
It seems Gilliam intended the dwarves to be a comment on the Pythons and their success: bickering their way into one misadventure after another and periodically vanishing from reality into realms of pure imagination. It's pretty fitting, then, and while it leaves a few scenes feeling crowded, we'll happily take it.
There are so many ways to be a bad parent. Kevin's parents have definitely found a few.
We'd be hard pressed to find shallower or more materialistic people. They sit in their suburban home with plastic covers on the furniture, fretting about their digital toaster and kitchen gadgets with the kind of resigned depression of the truly doomed. Here's their kid, all energy and enthusiasm and Greek warriors killing each other with their bare hands, and they still need an alarm on their digital watches to remind themselves when he has to go to bed.
Their materialism is something they have in common with Evil, who has a thing for technological gadgets and who wants to remake the world in his image. As far as Kevin's parents are concerned, it's already happened, and while they don't seem all that happy about it—seriously, that's a pair of truly miserable people, that is—they clearly don't have the motivation to seek anything better, even for their kid.
Naturally, since they're down with Evil's plan, by temperament if not by active consent, we're bound to see signs of them in Evil's fortress—such as the illusion of them as co-hosts of the insipid game show they keep watching. When, at the very end, a piece of Evil shows up in their toaster and quickly blasts them into tiny globules of smoking ash, it's no less than they deserve. While Kevin is understandably shocked at the sight, we're pretty sure he'll be better off without them.