James Croot is the editor of Stuff to Watch.
OPINION: Taika Waititi’s latest project has a lot to live up to.
Sure keeping Marvel fans happy is a full-time job, but this was a movie that left a generation of Kiwi kids shocked and horrified when it debuted here just on 40 years ago.
A truly wild, sometimes anarchic adventure-fantasy with an ending that left young moviegoers in tears, plagued by nightmares and double-checking at household appliances were switched off for months afterwards.
I still vividly remember seeing Time Bandits as an eight-year-old at Dunedin’s Octagon Cinema and walking out of it in something of daze, stunned at how Evil had gotten the last laugh on our young hero Kevin (Craig Warnock). Sure there had been the cartoon lupine carnage of Watership Down and Empire Strikes Back’s ambiguous ending, but nothing in my nascent film-going had prepared me for such a downbeat denouement (an ending that only survived thanks to the first test audience of kids declaring it their favorite part of the movie).
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Scheduled to start filming somewhere on our shores before the end of this month (Wellington the favored rumor as the production’s location, although Dunedin has also been mentioned in dispatches), little is known about Waititi’s 10-part adaptation of Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin’s time -travelling tale. He recently told The Face that he was sharing writing duties with his regular Kiwi collaborator Jemaine Clement and British sitcom The Inbetweeners co-creator Iain Morris and that it’s “really funny, and embrace all of the Terry Gilliam tone and everything that we loved about the movie”.
But how will he turn a sometimes breathless sub-two-hour series of vignettes, action and comedic set-pieces into anywhere from five-to-10 hours of gripping fantasy telly without it feeling bloated or padded out?
For those unfamiliar with the original – and given that, criminally, the only way you’ve been able watch it in New Zealand for some years is by mail order DVD/Blu-Ray from Alice’s or Aro Video you’re likely to not be alone – it’s the story of a history-obsessed 11-year-old whose boring life of being ignored by his gadget-loving parents is upended when his room is invaded by six little people.
On the run from a floating head they call “the supreme being”, they urge Kevin to follow them through a time hole. Next moment, he’s joined them in Napoleonic France, entertaining France’s leader (Ian Holm) with a chaotic group performance of Me and My Shadow. After he appoints them all generals, the sextet’s leader Randall (David Rappaport) explains that they used to work for the Supreme Being – in the trees and shrubs department – but were busted down to repairs for creating the infamous Pink Bunkadoo.
“It was 600 foot all, bright red and melt terrible.” Angered, they decided to steal a map of the universe that reveals all the time-hopping holes.
“You see, to be quite frank, Kevin, the fabric of the universe is far from perfect,” Randall explains, “It was a bit of botched job, you see. We only had seven days to make it. And that’s where this comes in…Why repair them? Why not use them to get stinking rich?”
What follows is a wild time and globetrotting ride which takes in Sherwood Forest, Ancient Greece, the deck of the Titanic and the Time of Legends. That’s apparently where “the most fabulous object in the world” resides, something Randall is now completely focused on possessing. However, little does he or the others know, it’s actually a trap set by Evil (David Warner) himself, who believes, with the map in his possession and his knowledge of electronics, he could ‘overthrow creation itself”.
“If I were creating the world I wouldn’t mess about with butterflies and daffodils. I would have started with lasers, eight o’clock, Day One!”
Yes, the original Bandits is far from perfect, as it descends into Blazing Saddles-style chaos in the final half-hour and its storytelling sometimes plays second-fiddle to its surrealism or pontificating about modern day maladies (things Gilliam would again explore in the other two movies in his “Trilogy of Imagination”, 1985’s Brazil and 1988’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, with again mixed results in terms of audience reaction).
You can also tell it was helmed by the same sometimes fevered mind that gave the world the oft-quoted, cult classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail six years earlier.
However, where it really shines is in the Doctor Who/Quantum Leap/Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure-esque interactions between Kevin and his band of pint-sized “bandits” with historical (and mythological) figures. Waititi will have to find the modern-day equivalent of Sean Connery’s Agamemnon and John Cleese’s Robin Hood.
Then there’s the big bad. Warner, who died last month at the age of 80, was renowned for his ability to generate fear amongst cinemagoers – and he was in his prime at the start of the 1980s. Time Bandits was sandwiched between his turns as Time After Time’s Jack the Ripper and Tron’s Master Control Program, two roles that still have the power to unnerve today.
In Bandits, he did a magnificent job of being the focal point of fear for younger audience members and a figure of fun for the adults, with his delivery of such delicious lines as: “HE created slugs! They can’t hear. They can’t speak. They can’t operate machinery. Are we not in the hands of a lunatic?”
If Waititi has managed to find Warner’s modern day equivalent – What We Do in the Shadows’ Matt Berry could definitely pull it off – then maybe, just maybe, we might all be in for a treat – and a whole new set of nightmares.
Time Bandits is available to rent on DVD and Blu-Ray from Alice’s and Aro Video.