Terry Gilliam Week Day #1: Time Bandits

It's been a long time since we've done a "Week" here at DVDExotica, and Terry Gilliam is one I've had planned since the earliest days.  Actually, if I'm being honest, I'm not a huge Gilliam fan.  I mean, I guess that's a fairly popular stance to take these days regarding his contemporary work.  I don't think cineastes are really bashing down the doors to get into screenings for The Brothers Grimm, Zero Theorem or The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.  Any who still are probably optimistically clinging to their memories of his early days, holding out hope for a return to form, like Argento fans.  And his latest effort, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, at least reclaimed some respectability, about on par with Dark Glasses.  Even Gilliam's more celebrated work, though, I could often take or leave.  But he's had a good run on home video, so I thought I'd spend the next few days looking at the ones I take.
So let's start with perhaps his most perfect work, 1981's Time Bandits.  The only thing I might hold against Time Bandits is that it's basically a children's film.  And there's nothing at all wrong with children's films; but being an adult, it kind of makes them a little too simple for me to really sink into and get much depth out of.  But Time Bandits is so demented, slightly twisted and delightfully busy on the surface, maybe that's all it needs.  Or maybe it just holds enough moments of treasured childhood memories that the nostalgia magic of the cowboys and the knights, the tank and the spaceship all coming together to fight the evil wizard in his Lego castle is enough to keep suckering me back in.  I might need a more objective younger person to weigh in.  But if I get a kick out of it as much as I do, there's surely enough of you out there who do, too.
Gilliam started out as a cartoonist, and for good or ill, he's pretty much remained one through every stage of his filmmaking career.  It's enabled him to add a million little details to his production design and come up with some memorable imagery of fantasy.  But it might limit him in other departments, which is why it's fortunate he's got such wonderful collaborators here.  Fellow Python Michael Palin co-wrote the script, and also takes a turn as a minor, recurring comic character.  And speaking of the cast, you've got some heavy hitters from Sean Connery to John Cleese, Ian Holm, Shelly Duvall, Jim Broadbent, Peter Vaughn, Ralph Richardson, Katherine Helmond (Who's the Boss) and the great David Warner as the arch villain.  Not to mention the bandits themselves are all terrific, and even the kid manages to hold his own surrounded by such talent.  After a certain point down that list, I think it becomes impossible to make a bad movie.  Is it not as funny as a Python movie?  Is the pacing a little uneven?  Well, so what?  Look at how much you do get!
Time Bandits came out on DVD twice in 1999 in the US alone: Anchor Bay's non-anamorphic barebones DVD, and Criterion's non-anamorphic DVD with a commentary. In 2004, Anchor Bay updated their disc to a Divimax special edition DVD, which is to say it's from an HD master and yes, anamorphic with new extras, albeit without the commentary.  It hit blu in the UK first, from Optimum, in 2009, but we got it here shortly after, in 2010, from Image.  But it got a fancy, updated 2k restoration from Arrow in 2013, with a whole bunch of additional extras.  And finally, Criterion imported that 2k to the US in 2014, with a completely different set of extras, including their original commentary.
1) AB 1999 DVD; 2) AB 2004 DVD; 3) 2010 Image BD;
4) 2013 Arrow BD; 5) 2014 Criterion DVD.

So I did that thing again where I leave the negative space around the first set of shots to demonstrate the shifting aspect ratios over the years.  It also illustrates the smaller image of AB's early non-anamorphic image, which is necessarily lower res than its later reissue.  It's also cropped surprisingly tight to 1.81:1, with less picture around the sides than any of the other releases in this comparison.  Their 2004 disc only shifts ratio ever so slightly to a marginally windowboxed 1.82:1, but pulls out to reveal more and brightens the image significantly.  And despite still being SD, it's a lot clearer with stronger color separation and detail.  Then Image comes along, and despite boosting it to a genuinely HD blu-ray, manages to make things worse.  It's left unmatted at 1.77:1, overcast with a red hue, and interlaced(!), which not even the 1999 DVD was.  Any hint of grain has been smoothed away.

Finally, Arrow comes along with its new 2k restoration from the OCN (we don't know what all the previous editions were taken from, but Criterion's 1999 DVD says it's from the 35mm interpositive).  Of course, it's no longer 1080i, and bumped up to a dual layered disc.  It's still not exactly 1.85:1, but it's the closest we've come, matted to 1.83:1, with roughly the same vertical information as the Image but with more revealed along the sides.  The colors are corrected, and we've finally got a natural, filmic look.  Criterion just uses the same Gilliam-approved restoration Arrow debuted, and I only got the DVD for the extras, so I can't really judge their encode.  But to their credit, they did tweak the framing to actually be 1.85:1.

Originally, Anchor Bay just offered us the Dolby Digital stereo mix, but in 2004 they also added a 5.1 remix.  Neither had subtitles, which is one thing the old Criterion DVD could at least take credit for.  Image's blu doesn't even have subs, though it throws in a French dub.  It also has both English mixes, but only the 5.1 is lossless.  Jeez, what a crummy disc.  Arrow finally gives us both tracks in lossless DTS-HD and LPCM with English subtitles, and Criterion is the same (though their DVD is lossy, of course), except it drops the 5.1, which is fine by me.
Extras for Time Bandits are interesting, because they're always different. The old AB DVD is barebones, apart from the trailer (which is pretty unusual, so don't skip it), but their 2004 DVD has some nice stuff.  There's a new on-camera interview with Gilliam and Palin, which is both informative and amusing.  The trailer's back, and they include the 2000 documentary/ episode of The Directors on Gilliam.  Admittedly, those tend to be available elsewhere (if nothing else, they were all sold separately), but they're still pretty great hour-long overviews that score a lot of big name interviews.  This one gets a bunch of the stars of Bandits, plus Brad Pitt, Amanda Plummer and more.

Surprisingly, Image's blu isn't barebones.  They actually have their own, all new on-camera interview with Terry Gilliam.  Well, not really "their own."  Optimum created for their release, and Image carried it over to the states.  But it's good and covers all the basics, though if you have any of the other special editions, you don't need it, because you can hear him saying all the same stuff on those.  They have the trailer, too.
Image's (of course interlaced) Gilliam interview.
Arrow has the best set of features, though.  They have their own, new interview with Gilliam, plus a solo one with Palin, and more great interviews with David Warner, effects artist Kent Houston, costume designer James Acheson, production designer Milly Burns, a second featurette with Burns showing us behind-the-scenes artwork from the film, a brief restoration featurette and the trailer.  The first pressing also included a booklet and all pressings have reversible cover art.

Criterion has the second best set, and it has nothing in common with Arrow's, Anchor Bay's or Image's (apart from the trailer... they all have that).  Most importantly, they have their old commentary, which actually debuts from their 1998 laserdisc, and is pretty great.  It's one of those spliced together mash-ups, mixing commentary by Gilliam, Palin, John Cleese, David Warner and the kid himself, Craig Warnock.  This is the only place Cleese and Warnock are heard from, and it's the only audio commentary at all, so it's pretty valuable.  They also have a their own featurette with Acheson and Burns called Creating the World of Time Bandits.  Nice, but less essential, are a short vintage television interview with Shelly Duvall and a very lengthy film festival Q&A with Gilliam.  There's also a stills gallery and a fold-out insert/ map of the universe with notes by critic David Sterritt.
So, as far as the film presentation itself, it's absolutely worth updating to one of the 2k releases from any previous edition you might own.  After that, the decision is all about the special features.  They're so diverse, I'd actually recommend both the Criterion and the Arrow together; though you can do like I did and save a few dollars by getting just the DVD of one them (they've both released DVD-only versions of their latest releases).  And serious fans might want to take it even further and pick up the Anchor Bay DVD, but only the most die-hard completists need to bother with the Image/ Optimum.

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