I don’t know what to say. Should I attack or praise? On the one hand, Terry Gilliam created a really mediocre film in Time Bandits. (Just calm down: I’ll explain in a minute.) On the other, Terry Gilliam created one of my very favorite films in 12 Monkeys. And you know what the difference is? Madeleine Stowe. No. Just kidding, even though you can definitely throw Stowe on my ever increasing list of woman I have a crush on. No. The difference is the script.
There is much to like about Time Bandits. It has some wonderful comic bits. It has what I have come to think of as “Terry Gilliam art direction.” And the mostly optical special effects are surprisingly good. (Compare them to the original Star Wars effects and you’ll see the difference.) And I’ll admit, when I saw this film as a kid, I liked it. At least, that’s how I remember it.
But it’s a mess. It is nothing more than an excuse to do a bunch of scenes with different costumes. And despite its flashes of brilliance, it just isn’t engaging. Whenever you get involved with a part of the film, you are ripped to another time. In a very real sense, it is an episode of Monty Python without being truly funny. With a really pretentious third act.
Compare it to Gilliam’s later film, 12 Monkeys. This is a film that could easily have been just as disconnected and meaningless as Time Bandits. But it is grounded in as good a screenplay as I have ever seen by the incredibly talented David Peoples (along with his wife, Janet). In a sense, it was the perfect combination: the right script for Gilliam, who I otherwise find wanting.
Time Bandits starts and never really ends. It just meanders on and stops. I learned from an interview on the DVD that the ending with Sean Connery wasn’t even planned. Gilliam and co-writer Michael Palin just planned to leave the little boy parentless at the end of the film with no thought of where he might go from there.
12 Monkeys has one of the most satisfying endings of any movie I can think of. James Cole learns that the memory that has been haunting him since childhood is the witnessing of his own death. What’s more, even though the film moves through various times, we are never confused. There is dramatic momentum throughout, and the fact that we do not end where we think we are heading makes it all the better.
I don’t mean to rag on Time Bandits as much as gush about 12 Monkeys. I understand that Time Bandits is a children’s film. Just the same, Frankenweenie, ParaNorman, and the extremely great Babe: Pig in the City are all far better. I do not see what the big deal is about Time Bandits. I do not think it is even effective as pure entertainment. On the other hand, if you have not seen 12 Monkeys, you should. It is one of the very best big budget Hollywood films ever.
Update (18 February 2013 10:34 pm)
On my most recent viewing of Babe: Pig in the City, I was not as impressed. But it is still a fine film.