As one would expect of a Criterion release, the DVD of "Time Bandits" is an absolute pleasure, from the clean film transfer to the many delightful added features.
The production scrapbook is a treasure, along with the commentary by Gilliam and Palin. These features truly enrich one's appreciation for the film; not only do they lavish praise on the actors playing the "dwarves" (who, in retrospect, did nothing less than a heroic job), but also reveal many of the clever tricks that allowed them to create such a sumptuously beautiful film for the cost of Speilberg's monthly catering bill. Compare this film to expensive clunkers like "Tron" (which came out a year later!) to appreciate the extent of Gilliam's craft. Cleese's description of his day's work is howlingly funny, and David Warner is generous and wryly amusing. The now-grown Craig Warnock is not particularly eloquent, however, and it's hard to tell if he's joking about the film scarring him psychologically!
The trailer is simply awful, after a promising start, but it's indicative of AVCO's cluelessness about how to market such a fresh and original film. They tried to pass it off as Python style comedy, safe for kiddies and fun for grow-ups. In fact, it's nothing of the kind - it's a dangerous and rigorous film that one may wish to keep out of the hands of small children.
Despite it's vague resemblance to "The Wizard of Oz" told upside down (or inside out?), "Time Bandits" is not a typical (modern) children's film. It has an old-fashioned Grimm-ness, with creatures dying nasty, sweaty deaths and even "good" characters behaving quite badly at times. In short, it is more utterly honest than any fantasy film made since Disney bowdlerized "Snow White."
Understanding that young people like to be frightened, and taking peculiar delight in how "awful" his band of dwarf thieves are, Gilliam places a very real boy (so real, he's almost dull) in an amazing series of situations, exposing him to terrible ordeals with only a shifty gang of unreliable and occasionally stupid companions to guide and protect him - though mostly they ignore him or egg him on to be more like them (being dwarves, he towers over them, both physically and morally). At the very moment he feels he's found the right place to be, they tear him away with no regard for his wishes or feelings, and ultimately thrust him into conflict with forces neither he nor they can comprehend, let alone master.
Sounds a bit like growing up, doesn't it?
Along the way, Gilliam tweaks various legendary Great and Powerful Figures (Napoleon, Agamemnon, Robin Hood - even Satan [referred to exclusively as "The Evil Genius"]), not to mention technology and consumerism, to reveal the narrow-minded, clumsy, grasping people we grown-ups really are.
The ending remains controversial, although I can remember seeing it in my late teens and feeling utterly liberated by it (what teenage boy doesn't want his parents to evaporate, at least once in a while?). There's more honesty and meaning in the last five minutes than any patently false "happy ending" could hope to achieve, although young children conditioned to expect Pocahontas to live happily ever after with John Smith (which, of course, she didn't) may find it too disturbing.
"Time Bandits" is a triumphant use of fantasy to articulate truth, of the power of the imagination to find the reality hidden in plain sight (the figures in the final conflict can all be found in the boy's room in the early scenes). It's an unforgettable film, with images and characters that will stay with you for a lifetime, even if you aren't an impressionable, disaffected, precocious brat (like I was when I first saw it), but especially if you are!