The Brothers Grimm
by Terry Gilliam (dir)
Review by Drew Bittner
Dimension Films Film ISBN/ITEM#: B00005JN5X
Date: August 26 List Price N/A Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
The story of two con men trading on folklore and superstition, The Brothers Grimm (directed by Terry Gilliam) is a hodge-podge of fairy tales held together by a thin plot that never quite decides what it wants to be: a tale of redemption, a (very dark) take on tales that have been Disney-fied into kiddie fare, or a slapstick comedy involving two un-heroes.
And that's a shame. But... on to the story.
Wilhelm (Damon) and Jacob (Ledger) Grimm are a study in contrasts. Will is mercenary and pragmatic; Jake is dreamy and yearns to find a real fairy tale. Caught by the vicious General Delatombe (Pryce, reprising the same type of character he played in Gilliam's Adventures of Baron Munchausen), they are arrested for exploiting the villagers, but given a possible alternative to death: expose what must be another supernatural hoaxster in a German village. However, this hoax is not costing the villagers money; it is costing them their girls. Ten have disappeared so far, and the French (who now occupy early-19th century Germany as part of Napoleon's campaign--don't ask) must find and deal with the problem. So, to kill two birds with one stone, the general sets Will and Jake on the case, in the custody of Italian torturer/assassin Cavaldi (Stormare).
They find that the village lies near a wood said to be enchanted. They prevail upon Angelika (Lena Headey), a trapper, to take them into the woods. Once there, they discover the legend of an evil Mirror Queen (Bellucci) who learned the secret of immortality but not, alas, the secret of eternal youth. However, she has a way around that, one that involves the missing girls. She is assisted in her depredations by a huntsman with uncanny skills of his own. Along the way, the Grimms manage to incorporate, encounter or mention practically every fairy tale known to Western Europe (including several they didn't record).
As the night of a lunar eclipse approaches, the Grimms realize that they must either become the heroes they've pretended to be... or watch as a powerful evil rises from her age-old sleep to menace the modern world.
Sadly, this movie misses the forest for the magical trees. Will and Jake don't take form in a concrete way; they vacillate between being buffoons, reluctant heroes and gung-ho adventurers. They aren't even given a good reason for helping the villagers. The French are portrayed as little more than thugs, scarcely on screen for any length of time (except to illustrate how powerful the witch-queen is); they could have been left out and had a stronger story for it.
The true story of the Grimms--one was a lawyer, the other a doctor, who traveled Germany to preserve the old tales and thus the culture of the land in a time of change-- was a genuinely interesting tale, and one unknown to nearly all who have heard the stories they preserved. It is a shame that there is nothing of that in this film. Basing a story on their real doings might have resulted in a much stronger film.
Similarly, the torturer Cavaldi is a treasure of missed opportunities. He seems like a fellow with roots in the past who is struggling to be modern. It would have been illuminating to see this dilemma resolve itself in him more forcefully, instead of as an afterthought late in the movie. He is as much ally as enemy to the Grimms, particularly as he realizes the truth of what they're facing, but his own character arc was woefully underdeveloped. If the brotheres are un-heroic, then he at least is a comic anti-hero.
Bellucci is alternately horrifying and radiant as the Mirror Queen, who seems to have inspired tales as diverse as Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel, though she is not called on to do a great deal of acting. Headey is terrific as Angelika but the story, unhappily, gives her little to do toward the end.
The effects of the story, a Gilliam trademark, are hit and miss. The early sequence, battling a witch in a mill, is terrific; however, the moving trees later on are rather poor CGI, and a menacing wolf goes from being very effective (at a distance) to rather cheesy close up. The most hideous effect is the Gingerbread Man who steals a girl's face before gobbling her up; it's rivaled by a horse that similarly swallows up a girl in order to kidnap her.
The Brothers Grimm is the least of Gilliam's films, and that's unfortunate. While diverting enough for an hour or two, it leaves little of substance behind and is likely to be forgotten, unlike the true Grimms' legendary body of work.