Terry Gilliam – in his films, at least – sees the world with the eyes of both a child and an artist, which is never more evident than in his 1981 film Time Bandits. Time Bandits is most memorable for the visual wonder it portrays, somehow managing to infuse whimsy into even the Napoleonic Wars, but it is also notable for how it establishes co-writer/director Gilliam’s wheelhouse: a delightful mixture of childhood wonder, adult cynicism and futurist alarm that defines his best work.

Made for a big at-the-time $5 million (close to $15 million when adjusted for inflation, but that number ignores the massive growth of the film industry), Time Bandits grossed over $40 million in the United States (over $100 million today), making it Gilliam’s first hit and thus establishing the director as a name to watch in Hollywood. This enabled the next two pictures in Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination,” 1985’s Brazil and 1988’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and this trilogy represents the director’s peak, though it came early in his career.

The numbers are important, because the real legacy of Time Bandits is its stunning presentation. An increased budget allowed Gilliam to translate the wonders of his imagination into his cinematic vision, and the results are incredible. In particular, his use of sets and practical effects aren’t just good, they are revolutionary, and his work in this realm has never been matched. Looking at Time Bandits now, nearly 40 years after its release, allows us to look at it as both an innovation and as an artifact, and it stuns when considered as either. With Time Bandits, Gilliam builds on the vision of his forebears Georges Méliès and Victor Fleming, establishes himself among peers like Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott and exerts his influence on current talent like J.J. Abrams, Benh Zeitlin and Julie Taymor.

Time Bandits, in typical Gilliam fashion, tells a relatively simple story tied up in utterly insane detail. A series of mishaps finds youngster Kevin (Craig Warnock) joining a troupe of time-traveling, treasure-hunting dwarves, and the story follows them jumping from era to era (allowing Gilliam to cast stars like Sean Connery and Ian Holm as historical figures) in search of booty. Unlike later siblings Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Time Bandits’ plot is rather weak, serving as a conduit for magnificent visuals and quirky performances rather than contributing much on its own. While several jokes hit home (courtesy of co-writer Michael Palin of Monty Python fame), Time Bandits is far more memorable for its visual ingenuity than plot innovation.

Time Bandits is somewhat startling in that it represents several creative peaks for Gilliam (particularly in terms of visuals) so early in his career. While he certainly built on Time Bandits’ better qualities in later films, he never took the seeds planted here to exponential heights. The most beautiful moments of Time Bandits are sometimes matched in the director’s later films and rarely surpassed.

Time Bandits also signals the director’s troubling treatment of female characters. Time Bandits features few female characters, and like many of his later films, they are present for their beauty or for briefly maternal and/or quirky moments. This isn’t only a shame in terms of equal representation; it’s also sad because it makes one wonder what Gilliam could do with a really great female part, or how beautiful he could make the male form appear if he devoted the same attention to it as he did female bodies. His excellence in other areas makes his deficiencies all the more disappointing.

Time Bandits marked the real start of one of film’s most imaginative careers. It is the first in an extraordinary “trilogy” and lays the groundwork for much of Terry Gilliam’s work. However, it also incites questions of what could have been and what should have been. A visual pioneer and master of quirk, Gilliam will be remembered forever, but his legend would be so much more powerful if he invested the same wonder into plot as he did to setting and if he allowed his female characters to inhabit the same realms as their male counterparts.

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