Time Bandits 4K

by Glenn Erickson Jul 29, 2023

Terry Gilliam’s fantasy epic is back in the super 4K Ultra HD format, which makes his achievement look all the more spectacular. Two hours of unceasing visual miracles, delightful personalities and wickedly civilized humor begin when a pack of cosmic workers purloin a celestial map and become time-traveling thieves. A young hero joins them and learns the secrets of the universe. Beautifully made, with charming performances from Craig Warnock, David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, Ralph Richardson, David Warner, Ian Holm, John Cleese, Shelley Duvall, Katherine Helmond, Michael Palin and especially Sean Connery.

Time Bandits 4K
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 37
1981 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 117 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date June 13, 2023 / 39.95
Starring: Craig Warnock, David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, Malcolm Dixon, Mike Edmonds, Tiny Ross, Ralph Richardson, David Warner, Sean Connery, Ian Holm, John Cleese, Shelley Duvall, Katherine Helmond, Michael Palin, Peter Vaughan, Jim Broadbent.
Cinematography: Peter Biziou
Production Designer: Milly Burns
Art Director: Norman Garwood
Film Editor: Julian Doyle
Costume Design: James Acheson
Original Music: Mike Moran
Screenplay by Michael Palin & Terry Gilliam
Produced and Directed by
Terry Gilliam

Last January Criterion gave us a stunning 4K disc of Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. We’re now just as eager to see Gilliam’s box office hit Time Bandits given the 4K treatment as well. It’s an audience-pleaser that dazzles children and charms adults. Every film student recognized it as a monumental work of creativity, especially on the director’s limited budget.

Time Bandits was one of the earliest Criterion DVDs released back in 1998 or thereabouts. A Blu-ray surfaced 9 years ago, and this edition will give more people the opportunity to discover the handiwork of the production company Handmade Films, which in 1980 was largely run by ex-Beatle George Harrison. Handmade has an admirable record, if not for big successes, then for films deemed worthy of merit. Harrison and producing partner Denis O’Brien initiated some pictures and rescued a few others when they were abandoned by larger UK producing entities, like Monty Python’s The Life of Brian and the superior gangster film The Long Good Friday.


In 1981 Handmade put its faith behind filmmaker Terry Gilliam, who at the time was known mainly for interstitial animations for the Monty Python TV franchise. Time Bandits is an original, a delightful children’s tale outfitted with a keen sense of adult irony. Made for relative pennies, it outclasses many big-scale fantasies to follow. Gilliam’s fanciful visual imagination and eccentric sense of humor transplants well to big-screen fantasy, buoyed by its delightful art-craft, a literal ‘handmade’ quality that makes George Harrison’s logo all the more appropriate.

We’re told that Terry Gilliam concocted Time Bandits because Handmade wasn’t ready to commit to the more expensive project he proposed, Brazil. The basic story here is a fantasy gem. A group of workers for  ‘The Supreme Being’ (in the bushes & shrubbery department) grow weary of their lowly status and purloin the original map of the universe. As the cosmos was constructed only in seven days, the fabric of space and time has numerous holes that the argumentative dwarves can exploit to jump to various places in time — to pull off spectacular robberies. Little person gardener Randall (David Rappaport) bosses the others around:

“We agreed to have no leader, so shut up and do as I say!”


While pursued by the disembodied head of The Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson), the diminutive bandits enlist the lonely, imaginative British schoolboy Kevin (Craig Warnock). He’s a willing partner, despite being snatched from his bedroom in the middle of the night. Their adventures include fleecing and being fleeced by such historical luminaries as Napoleon (Ian Holm), Agamemnon (Sean Connery) and Robin Hood (John Cleese). The bandits accidentally interfere in the love life of the silly-twit sweethearts Vincent and Pansy (Michael Palin & Shelley Duvall), whose romance repeats through the ages — they appear in Robin Hood’s forest as well as on the deck of the Titanic.

To evade The Supreme Being, Randall takes his motley gang into the Land of Magic, hoping to steal a fabulous fortune from the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness. This of course is a trap laid by ‘Evil’ (David Warner), a self-important demon intent on securing the map of space and time. Evil would like nothing better than to usurp The Supreme Being’s throne and take control of the universe. The intrepid Time Bandits perform a daring escape, but the highly moral Kevin convinces them that the map must be retrieved at any cost.


Charged with the enthusiasm of its high-spirited thieves, Time Bandits harnesses ingenious designs to its solid storytelling. Terry Gilliam and his production designer Milly Burns concoct dozens of clever sets, incorporating miniatures and limited special effects to achieve specific visual aims. A town in Lombardy burns under Napoleon’s bombardment — it’s either a well-chosen ruin or a redressed studio set. An authentic ancient city stands in for Agamemnon’s Greece, a pricey bit of location work in Tunisia that makes the film look lavishly expensive (even the light is different).

Gilliam’s miniature castles, monsters and ships at sea, etc. are cleverly designed to fulfill only what was required by the scripted storyboards. A tilt-crane shot up what seems to be an endlessly tall Fortress of Ultimate Darkness turns into a clever Overkill joke, like the long, long spaceship flyover in Star Wars. One of the most impressive effects is a sailing ship that is revealed to be a hat worn by an enormous giant. The colossus is a showstopper — he emerges from the ocean in slow motion, and stomps across a sandy landscape in ten-league strides.


Entertaining stagecraft and terrific costumes make an enormous contribution to the show’s impact — costume designer Jim Acheson dresses dwarves, heroes and fantastic creatures in a wonderful selection of lived-in uniforms and raggedy tunics. A dance performance in Agamemnon’s Greece evokes a delight in delicate color and movement. Ancient times, for once, looks like a charming place to live.

Viewers have been quick to compare Time Bandits to The Wizard of Oz. The parallels are certainly there — an odd adventure away from home, a ‘wizard’ who appears as a floating head, a mission to destroy the evil villain within a forbidding castle. Kevin falls in with six Munchkin rejects trying their best to be despicable thieves. Strung upside-down by Robin Hood’s gang of swarthy thugs, Randall screws up his face trying to look like a really, really nasty bad guy. Yet all the bandits are creampuffs at heart.


Kevin’s parents are a sad pair of consumer zombies obsessed with kitchen appliances. The heroes encountered by the bandits derive from Kevin’s daydreams and studies, another Oz-like parallel. Some of them are just as disappointing as Mom and Dad. Napoleon is a dolt who loves violent Punch ‘n’ Judy shows. The condescending Robin Hood smiles with upper-class insincerity as he steals Randall & Kevin’s golden loot.

Although the universe is put more or less back in order at the finish, Time Bandits makes wicked fun of the notion of a benevolent paternalistic God. As embodied by Ralph Richardson, The Supreme Being is a sober elitist with little patience for his untrustworthy minions. The bandits’ entire jaunt, it turns out, was engineered by TSB to rid himself of another concentration of ‘pure, undiluted Evil.’

Time Bandits doesn’t reassure us by reinforcing traditional values, which distinguishes it from most children’s fantasies. For Kevin, there’s no sign that heaven really cares about him personally. The rather ironic finish puts Kevin’s future back home in doubt. But tragedy is the last thing on our minds, as we’re convinced he’ll be better off fending for himself anyway. He’s a great kid with a natural sense of morality.


Gilliam’s later Brazil is a cruel tragedy with a with a cynical edge, but this first big-screen fantasy is at heart affectionate, sweet. The one historical character not lampooned is Sean Connery’s Agamemnon. The Greek king plays straight with Kevin. He smites wicked monsters, dispenses justice with a fair hand and laughs like a child at simple entertainments. Kevin probably doesn’t want to be stuck back in the ignorance and pestilence of the B.C. world, but Agamemnon is ideal as an adoptive father. Young children that see Time Bandits instantly love Sean Connery.

A substantial success in the United States, Time Bandits launched Terry Gilliam on the road to bigger things. He got to make his dream project Brazil but also suffered ill-fated run-ins with what he termed The Hamster Factor, a creeping tendency for complex productions to go wrong in unpredictable ways. Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen had much larger budgets but continued Gilliam’s style of ‘handmade’ illusions and trompe l’oeil magic. His filmography is a good argument for the claim that Computer Generated Imagery has effectively robbed special effects of their magic appeal. Everything in Gilliam’s later The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is pixel-perfect CGI work. But because almost anything can now be visualized, the illusions just sit there looking woefully Unspecial.



The Criterion Collection’s 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray of Time Bandits 4K is a new 4K restoration. The movie is viewable in its new remaster in both formats, with Criterion’s extras on the Blu-ray disc.

The show is as grand as ever in 4K, with extra edge of sharpness and contrast range that makes its images all the more rich and expressive. The extras are identical to those on the 2014 disc. Director Gilliam is refreshingly candid when discussing his own work — his criticisms tell us that his mind is always working on how to make things better,  even when they’re done and in the can.

The feature commentary was first heard on an old laserdisc — it’s a classic. The participants are director Gilliam, David Warner and former child actor Craig Warnock, with brief input from John Cleese and Michael Palin. We learn a lot about Gilliam’s relatively inexpensive special effects solutions, the marvelous little-person actors and executive producer George Harrison.


Gilliam’s designers explain some of their clever techniques in an interview piece. Also present is a 1998 conversation between Gilliam and academic Peter von Bagh, and actress Shelly Duvall’s appearance on a TV talk show with Tom Snyder. A photo gallery and an original trailer wind things up.

Criterion has retained its lenticular art slipcover. The folding insert is also very cute — one side is a reproduction of The Supreme Being’s Map of the Universe. An essay by David Sterritt on the reverse side.

This was a great show for children, back on VHS in the 1980s. George Harrison’s song  ‘Dream Away’  plays over the end credits, like a music video. It gives the finale a happy tone. Back in 1985 my kids danced around the living room every time it came on.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Time Bandits 4K
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Audio commentary featuring Gilliam, cowriter-actor Michael Palin, and actors John Cleese, David Warner, and Craig Warnock
Discussion featuring production designer Milly Burns and costume designer James Acheson
Conversation between Gilliam and film scholar Peter von Bagh
Shelley Duvall on Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow show from 1981
Gallery of on-set photographs
Foldout with essay by critic David Sterritt.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One 4K Ultra HD disc and one Blu-ray in keep case with lenticular card sleeve.
July 26, 2023

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Edward Sullivan

I’d seen Michael Cacoyannis’ and Irene Pappas’ ‘Iphegenia’ not all that long before watching ‘Time Bandits’ and it really, really tough to accept Connery’s nice-guy Agamemnon, but he won me over, just as he had for his womanizing Samson Shillitoe in ‘A Fine Madness’…

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