Mirror, mirror on the wall. Who’s the kookiest one of all?
Hopefully you answered “Terry Gilliam,” because that means we’re on the same page regarding this week’s When Can I Watch column.
Tarsem Singh’s Mirror Mirror
is about to hit theaters, casting Julia Roberts as the iconic Evil Queen and Lily Collins as the apple-biting befriender of seven pint-sized dwarfs. Which, of course, got my deranged mind thinking about my favorite “tiny” ensemble found in Gilliam’s Time Bandits
The film’s currently available on Netflix Instant, which gave my boys and me the chance to walk through multiple time holes and take Gilliam’s imaginative roller-coaster ride through history. Care to join us? Then let’s stage a puppet show for Napoleon, board the Titanic, avoid the gaze of an angry Supreme Being and figure out when you can watch Time Bandits with your kids.
Green Lights: “Little things hitting each other. THAT'S WHAT I LIKE!”
The question surrounding this week’s column really boils down to, “When are my kids ready for Gilliam?”
The Monty Python alum injects his trademark visual whimsy and maniacal sense of humor into each fairy tale production -- from The Brothers Grimm to Brazil – but few of his features are light enough for families. If your kids take to Time Bandits, have a copy of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen at the ready. That will make for a riotous double feature.
Anyway, why wouldn’t they take to Time Bandits? Though it has been years since I watched the 1981 fantasy all the way through, I was amazed at how many storytelling bases Gilliam and his Python partner, Michael Palin, cover in this irregular adventure. Time Bandits truly has it all: Pirates; cowboys; knights; ogres; science-fiction creatures; sword-and-sandal heroes; and religious undertones that will elude most kids but connect to parents like a post-modern sermon shouted from a colorful altar.
It’s also incredibly funny, a buoyant trip through history’s various eras with bumbling tour guides who are no bigger than our 11-year-old protagonist, Kevin (Craig Warnock).
If you’ve never seen Time Bandits, here’s the gist: Kevin’s a sweet-natured but largely ignored British adolescent who’s visited one evening by six mysterious, dwarf-sized time travelers who “borrowed” a map to the universe from the Supreme Being. They are using the map to rob various figures throughout history, but they are being pursued by the embodiment of Evil (David Warner), a Lucifer stand-in who has been banished from the “Garden” and would like to con his way back into God’s good graces.
Because this is Gilliam, we encounter everything from a stomping giant to an ogre with a bad back along the way. Months ago, when we discussed The Princess Bride
, we talked about how the fantasy genre – while wildly imaginative – still follows a basic formula. If you bothered to see Andrew Stanton’s John Carter
recently, you can even see how a story set on an alien planet can be boxed in by tired storytelling templates, which will bore a child (and a parent) to death.
You won’t have that problem with Time Bandits. Gilliam and Palin’s only rule is that there are no rules, so the narrative stays largely unpredictable from scene to scene. It’s why Kevin and his newfound friends can be on the deck of the Titanic one minute, then battling alongside Sean Connery or interacting with Robin Hood (John Cleese) the next.
My eight-year-old, P.J., was fascinated by Time Bandits, primarily because it doesn’t resemble anything else he’d seen up to this point. His eyes grew wider with each new fantasy element Gilliam dared to introduce. During the film, he kept asking me where I’d go if I could travel through time. I asked him if he’d use that power to rob from unsuspecting folks. Almost all of the religious messages – and some of Gilliam’s dry punchlines – flew right over P.J.’s head, though he absolutely connected with Kevin’s bravery, and I know he was thrilled by Gilliam’s endless imagination.
But there are aspects of Time Bandits that are not for kids, and I’ll touch on them, briefly, in the Red Flags section.
Red Flags: “Why do we have to have evil?”
Not content to limit Time Bandits to the (mis)adventures of Kevin, Randall and their crew, Gilliam introduces two characters in the Supreme Being (good) and Evil (bad, obviously) so he can explore a few philosophical questions in the movie’s third act. It’s a welcome depth in what could have been a superficial special effects movie, and it creates room for more discussion if your kids are old enough.
But for children the same age as mine (8 and 4), it’s dialogue that will be glossed over as they wait for the next fantasy thrill.
The thing about Time Bandits that I noticed while watching, as well, is that Gilliam’s in no rush to get to the next set piece. He leaves plenty of room for Cleese to improvise as Robin Hood. He lingers with Connery in the Babylonian era, probably because he HAD Connery. Why not use him, right? Few of the early time jumps lag, but Time Bandits grows so creative as it moves along that your kids will be more locked into the gradual pace when Gilliam starts throwing randomness against the wall to see what sticks.
For the most part, I want to celebrate Time Bandit’s desire to push its audience to think. By introducing religious, spiritual, historic and philosophical conundrums into the narrative, it’s far smarter than your normal fantasy epic and light years ahead of today’s blockbusters. But because it goes against the grain, it might take a while for your kids to warm up to it. I will say this, though. Both P.J. and Brendan are still talking about it to me days after we’ve watched it, asking me if I remember a certain part or reminding me about something funny one of the characters did.
And really, aren’t lasting memories that what we want from our kids’ movie-going experience?
Prior to revisiting, I might have guessed Time Bandits was appropriate for ages 12 and up, given Gilliam’s twisted humor and penchant for darker fantasy. But my 8-year-old son was largely enthralled with the fairy tale action, the mythical creatures, the pint-sized time travelers, and the adolescent hero at the heart of it all.
Because of that, I’m saying Time Bandits will work for your average 8- or 9-year-old. And I imagine it will be a welcome blast from the past for most of the parents reading this column, as many of us grew up with Gilliam’s odd adventure and might relish the opportunity to revisit it with our kids. If you watch it together, let me know how it goes!
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That With My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Hugo, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Elf, to name just a few.