Time Bandits Vs. 12 Monkeys

12 MonkeysI 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.

2 thoughts on “Time Bandits Vs. 12 Monkeys

  1. If you’ve got a "Monkeys" DVD on hand, check out the bonus feature, "Hamster Factor." In it, Gilliam goes ape on everyone because some damn hamster wheel isn’t visible enough in the futuristic background.

    That, to me, is Gilliam in a nutshell. He’s a gifted guy, but he lacks a sense of proportion vis-a-vis his own ideas; to him, if it comes from The Mind Of Terry Gilliam, why, it’s awesome.

    The documentary about his failed "Quixote" project makes this clear. Gilliam, as usual, stretched out the budget as far as possible to include his creative dreamy sequences. Then, important scenes involving actors delivering crucial dialogue were delayed because of an unforeseeable happenstance, namely rain, and the movie ran out of money.

    Anyone who’s ever worked on even the most amateur film project (I worked on a handful, and boy were they amateur) learns immediately that problems will occur, and you have to plan on them occurring, and you make sure to get the important stuff filmed first. If all goes well, you have time and money to shoot the extra, fun stuff.

    The extra, fun stuff is, for Gilliam, all there is. And it isn’t his money, so if things happen (like rain) which delay/demolish the production, well, he can always go back to carping about Hollywood Neanderthals who don’t appreciate art. The criticism is apt, but Gilliam fails to understand how self-indulgent artists like himself have helped make studio execs become paranoid Neanderthals.

    Stowe being the best thing about "Monkeys" isn’t quite a joke. "Monkeys" was Gilliam, on his last legs, with a very tight leash, making (for once) most of the movie about the story and actors, less of the "Hamster Factor." It’s why that’s the best thing he’s done (along with his Python work, where five other people told him to rein it in). Unfortunately, the movie was a hit, and Gilliam reverted to bad habits.

    For further examples see: Jackson, Peter.

  2. @JMF – I am largely in agreement. I watched all of the extras on the DVD many years ago. I remember the hamster bit. What I most liked was the parts that dealt with the Peoples. I could have used a lot more of that.

    But I think Gilliam’s problems go deeper. He is a visual artist, not a narrative artist. Most of his films lack a narrative core. It is also funny that he complains about studio execs, when his films have mostly been hugely successful and he’s gotten to do what he wants.

    Word is the Quixote film is back on.

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