Filmmaker Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits was released in 1981, when I was nine years old. It had a PG rating, and that label — and the fact the protagonist was 11 years old — suggested to my parents and me that it was a children's movie. But it took all of 10 minutes in the theater to disabuse me of that notion, scare the wits out of me and confirm this was a serious, life-altering silver screen experience that would destroy any previously-conceived ideas I had about happy endings for kids' stories.
Shortly after the 10-minute mark, Time Bandits' child star, 11-year-old Kevin (Craig Warnock), has his quaint, British suburban life turned upside-down when his bedroom cabinet turns out to be a wormhole that delivers six dwarf pirates into his life. The dwarves/bandits are barely in the room for a heartbeat when, amid a blast of smoke and white light, the silhouette of a giant skull begins chasing them down, demanding in a deep baritone the return of a map they've stolen from him. But before the imposing figure can catch up to them, the group of dwarfs and their new associate push back one of Kevin's bedroom walls and leap off the edge of it into a black, seemingly bottomless abyss.
That begins the central conceit of Time Bandits, an action/adventure, sci-fi black comedy that was one of two films Gilliam directed when he still was a part of the famous, yet-to-be-dissolved Monty Python troupe. The six dwarfs and Kevin use the pilfered map to cross time and space, sneak through important historical moments and cross paths with famous figures such as Napoleon (played with a lovely whimsy by Ian Holm), Robin Hood (John Cleese, one of two Python members to appear in the film), and King Agamemnon (Sean Connery) as they snatch treasure and narrowly avoid capture at all costs.
As it unfolds, Time Bandits' major battle becomes clear: the giant skull is the universe's Supreme Being, who wants to reacquire the stolen map before the embodiment of Evil (David Warner) gets his malicious claws on it and remakes the galaxy in his abominable image. Gilliam packs the 113-minute movie with plenty of dark humor — Shelley Duvall, Katherine Helmond, and Game of Thrones' Peter Vaughan all appear at various points to lighten the mood to various degrees – but there's an undercurrent of bleakness and despair running through the film's veins from its beginning to its conclusion. No character, including the omnipresent God himself, achieves a lasting emotional or professional fulfillment. There's a monkey wrench for every scenario, and no matter how noble a character's intent might be, the universe thwarts it and leaves heroes to deal with the ensuing disappointments.
As you can imagine, when you're a kid accustomed to clean, uplifting endings to every fable and fairy tale, the lessons of Time Bandits were a serious shock to the system. Gilliam would go on to revisit the dark underbelly of the best-intentions of mankind in films like The Fisher King and Brazil, but in Time Bandits, he perfectly captured the existentialist pangs of early childhood and the monumental letdowns of maturing and comprehending what the real world was like.
To wit: Cleese's Robin Hood is an oblivious political glad-handler with only a shallow appreciation for the poor he claims to be concerned about, and employs a vicious lieutenant who physically punches out every poor person after Robin Hood has redistributed wealth in their favor. The Supreme Being, meanwhile, is an absentee landlord who leaves humankind mostly to its own, flawed devices. Nobody has all the answers here — not even the guy who created the questions.
Even in Time Bandits' final scenes — in the aftermath of the showdown between the Supreme Being and Evil, which the former wins with the assistance of Kevin and the bandits — the audience receives an underwhelming payoff: Kevin is transported back to his parents' house (which is now fully engulfed in flames, requiring him to be saved by the local fire department) and the drudgery of his pre-adventure life.
Even worse, after spotting a chunk of concentrated Evil left over from the climactic battle, Kevin can't stop his parents from making a fatal error and touching it; it's a decision that causes both of them to combust into a cloud of ash and smoke on the spot, leaving Kevin to spend the rest of his life orphaned as the camera pans back and up into the clouds and in space, giving the audience the unmistakable conclusions no good deed goes unpunished and the most well-meaning heroes must face their actions' consequences all on their own.
Don't get me wrong — I love Time Bandits. Gilliam's imagination and painstakingly-detailed nods to real-life events give the picture a realism that doesn't romanticize history as so many modern movies do. But the overriding sense of cynicism with which he infuses the film tells viewers, "Sorry, but you won't get any comforting answers about this life. Basically, you're on your own. So try enjoying it and all its attendant bizarreness and gallows humor."
That's what separates Time Bandits from all other kids' movies, and what makes it an evergreen classic for children and adults alike. Thirty-seven years after it was released, it remains one of Gilliam's finest achievements, and anyone who seeks it out will be happy they did.
Okay, maybe "happy" isn't the right word. As Time Bandits proves, "happy" is a relative term, and it isn't promised even to history's most brave, unforgettable people. We're all running through time and space, stealing what small and large treasures we can and avoiding Evil's clutches before the Supreme Being eventually catches up to us. That's about as happy an ending as anyone can hope for.