After watching Terry Gilliam’s Tideland for the second time yesterday, and still feeling somewhat ambivalent about it, I wanted to go back and revisit one of his films which I have always enjoyed. Time Bandits was my favorite film when I was a kid, and I caught it every time it was on TV, which was pretty often as I remember. It was more than just a movie for me. It affected me the way that the Grimm Fairy Tales probably functioned for children in 19th-century Europe—it sparked my imagination, becoming something to think over later, and coloring the way I saw the boring world around me. It was a point of pride for me that my first name was the same as the English boy who escaped from his aloof parents and had adventures travelling through time and space, meeting Napolean and Agamemnon.
Time Bandits is surely the best kids’ movie ever made, if indeed it is a kids movie. Everything is told from the perspective of Kevin, who happens to be about 12 years old, and whose biggest problem is that his parents are almost completely uninterested in him and uninteresting themselves. If that makes it a kids movie, then so be it, but I enjoyed watching it again today almost as much as I did when I was 12. What Gilliam understood that so many other filmmakers have not is that kids do not want to watch a movie about another kid made to learn some life lessons. They want some affirmation that their thought, ideas and dreams are valid, rather than having adults force their views on them or ignore them altogether. The six dwarves who burst into Kevin’s bedroom are adults, are instantly much more interesting than Kevin’s parents, and offer promise of adventure. But they are quick to admit Kevin as one of their peers, and they are physically like him—”he is about our size,” says Randall, the leader of the bandits. This is not simply a case of a director not “dumbing down” a movie for a young audience, although it is also that. It is the director seeing the world through the eyes of a child and bringing that vision to the screen.
Looking back at Time Bandits after all these years, it is understandable why J. K. Rowling was so upset when Hollywood executives turned down her suggestion that Gilliam direct the first Harry Potter film.