Laughs and deep themes: a talk with 'Time Bandits' maker
''Actually, we're pretty childish. It would be nice to say childlike, wouldn't it? But no, childish it is!''
The speaker, with a broad smile on his face, is Terry Gilliam -- writer, director, and member of the Monty Python comedy troupe. He's referring to himself and Michael Palin, a fellow Python who teamed with him to create ''Time Bandits,'' one of the most popular movies of the holiday season.
It's not surprising that a children's film should be successful at this time of year, but ''Time Bandits'' is no ordinary children's film. On the plus side, it carries its comedy to hilarious heights in a few scenes, while bringing in some unexpectedly deep themes -- the nature of reality, the problem of evil, the relationship of God to mankind. Not that any deep conclusions are reached on any of these matters, but it's rare to see them even hinted at in an entertainment film. Indeed, one character (played by Ralph Richardson) is a so-called ''Supreme Being'' who shows up just in time to vanquish ''Evil,'' slitheringly portrayed by David Warner.
On a less uplifting note, ''Time Bandits'' contains a share of violence though it's cartoonish rather than realistic, and there's less of it than in a ''Star Wars'' or a ''Superman II.'' Also included are a few moments that kids would describe as ''gross'' (a hungry hero gnawing on a rat, for instance) that help account for the movie's PG rating. And the ending is downright bizarre for a children's film - an unexpected and unsettling twist that may disconcert younger moviegoers.
While these elements have put off some viewers, Gilliam feels they add a kind of weight -- comic and otherwise -- that speaks to children more than their elders realize. ''This isn't really a comedy,'' he said over lunch recently. ''It's an adventure, and the comedy just springs from our approach. What we wanted to make was a decent kids' film, something that hasn't been done for years. Beyond that, we just followed our feelings, like we always do.''
The trouble with adults, in Gilliam's opinion, is that they don't really look at children. ''They look at their own romantic views of their own childhoods,'' he says. ''But actually, kids are very clear-minded. They don't have our prejudices, our structures, our pigeon-holed ways of looking at life. And they can be ruthless. Though they have less experience than adults, they are no less intelligent. Their minds are just as active -- more so, in fact, because they haven't been limited and defined yet. To them, wonderful things can happen!''
In writing and directing ''Time Bandits,'' filmmaker Gilliam was reacting against the bowdlerized and ''suburbanized'' versions of fairy tales he ran across in reading to his own 41/2-year-old daughter. Still, he acknowledges meeting with some studio opposition to the last scene, which has a downbeat feeling. ''There were two arguments against our ending,'' he says, ''the commercial and the paternalistic. The commercial one didn't interest me at all. But the other argument -- that children might be disturbed -- did concern me. I'm really pro-kid, you know! So we screened it for lots of people before it was released, and we found the kids weren't bothered at all. Anyway, at the very end the camera sweeps back from the action, which puts everything in a cosmic perspective. I like to take the large view. I think it's comforting.''
The story of ''Time Bandits'' concerns a lad named Kevin, who finds a ''hole in time'' right in his own bedroom. Venturing through this mysterious tunnel, he emerges in different historical periods, teaming up with a band of comical time-traveling outlaws. There are strong echoes of 'Seven Dwarfs' and 'Wizard of Oz,' and also of ''The Chronicles of Narnia'' novels by C. S. Lewis, which are among the few children's books to tackle questions usually regarded as food for philosophers rather than youngsters. Still, most of the action is blatantly boisterous, with flashes of Python sharpness among the more frivolous jokes and surprises.
Gilliam seems aware that it's an odd duck of a film. But then, cheerful eccentricity has always been a Python stock in trade. According to Gilliam, the troupe's humor is invariably personal. ''If it makes us laugh, that's the end of the discussion,'' he says. ''We've never gone chasing after the audience, though we love having them along. The important thing isn't how many people come to see your work. The important thing is having to live with it for the rest of your life.''
That's why Python comedy always seems so individualistic: It's based on ''nothing but what pleases us,'' says Gilliam. ''In fact,'' he continues, ''it's all about us - or, in this case, about what's left of the kid in us.'' Hence the philosophical issues in his latest movie. ''The 'big questions' are always there for us. Michael and I had solid religious upbringings, so we grew up believing and thinking about God and religion and good and evil. I can't get those out of my system; they're a part of me. The normal approach in a kids' film is to make the final character a wizard. But why not bring God into it? Why not stop fiddling around, and get right down to things? The cosmic view appeals to me. I like to think I'm not alone, that there's a whole structure around us. . . .''
If his name and approach seem more familiar than his face and voice, it's because Gilliam is the Python behind the scenes - the nonperforming member of the popular troupe, the one who dreamed up the zany animations that filled in between comedy skits on their bygone (but frequently rerun) TV series. When the sextet moved toward the movies, it seemed natural that Gilliam (whose background is in magazine work as well as TV) should turn director. His first feature-filmmaking job was ''Monty Python and the Holy Grail,'' followed by the less inspired ''Jabberwocky.'' Though the Python TV show is no more, the troupe remains loosely together, and will be putting a new movie together soon.
''Time Bandits'' is very much Gilliam's work, though it was co-written by Palin and features a brilliant appearance by Python stalwart John Cleese, as a hilarious Robin Hood. As a basically personal project, it reflects Gilliam's views. He leans away from some popular entertainment: ''I enjoyed 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' while it was on,'' he recalls, ''but I couldn't remember it much afterward.'' And he favors some older forms of expression, such as classic fairy tales. ''They put you through some rough experiences, but you come out a little more confident at the end,'' he says with emphasis.
His values are visible in many details of ''Time Bandits,'' such as the fact that the young protagonist is seen as a book reader, while his parents are hooked on TV. ''The boy is a throwback,'' says Gilliam proudly, ''while his parents are the wave of the future, and much less attractive.'' There's even a bit of international satire here, since Gilliam - an American who moved to Britain as a young man - considers the English youth of today (like Kevin in the film) to be more literate than their American counterparts. ''British kids still read, and are still uncorrupted by a lot of the Americanization that's going on, '' he says.
''Time Bandits'' is very much a British film, right down to its incredibly low budget of under $5 million, less than half the Hollywood average. Of Britain Gilliam says ''They have gone through disasters much worse and much more real than the apparent disasters in the States,'' he says, ''and yet everyone gets along, and seems quite happy! That's why it's better in England, even with all the problems. The people have more sense of history, more perspective, and more resilience.''
Which sounds like a list of main ingredients in ''Time Bandits,'' a flawed and quirky movie, yet one that may be remembered after more expensive and more ephemeral entertainments have faded from the screen for good.