Before reviewing The Brothers Grimm, it might be pertinent to explain the background of the director, Terry Gilliam. Gilliam was born in the United States but has citizenship in Britain, so that probably colors his perceptions of the world a bit more than your usual "I live here" American. He's also directed the following films: Jabberwocky, Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Twelve Monkeys, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And oh yeah, he was part of Monty Python, creating the animations for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. If you can't find a common theme amongst those films, you've got it right: they're all extremely choppy, highly creative, all-over-the-place experiences that include flashbacks, hallucinations, and lots of European humor.
That brings us to his latest effort, The Brothers Grimm, an accumulation of all the film experiences that Gilliam has acquired up to now. The plot is almost ancillary; like all of Gilliam's films, The Brothers Grimm is more a collection of scenes and concepts.
Our heroes are Wilhelm Grimm (Matt Damon) and Jacob Grimm (Heath Ledger). Wilhelm is the no-nonsense, practical, warrior type. His brother Jacob is the exact opposite: bookish, introverted, and prone to flights of fantasy. These two tour the countryside, making up monsters to scare the peasants and using the latest in Medieval (?) technology to pull off elaborate hoaxes. Then the Grimm brothers ride into town to save the day, shades of Dragonheart.
Of course, our two lovable rogues can't get away with this forever. And so they eventually cross Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce), a French nobleman who doesn't believe in fairytales at all. He wants to put an end to rumors about an evil queen haunting an enchanted German wood in one of his recently conquered territories. Delatombe's chief henchman is the Italian Cavaldi (Peter Stormare), a toupee-wearing gun nut with a penchant for torture. With Cavaldi in tow, the Grimm brothers (or as Cavaldi likes to call them, "Grimmi") are sent out to do battle with whatever thing is kidnapping the children.
Along the way, there are nods to fairytales of all sorts, including Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, The Gingerbread Man, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel, The Toad Prince, and probably a bunch that I missed. All throughout the movie, children are abducted in horrifying ways. Gretel's animated kerchief lures her to certain doom. Another child thinks he hears a horse crying out for help and, when he frees it, is snared by webbing from the horse's mouth…then it SWALLOWS HIM WHOLE.
It was about this time that I remembered Gilliam's complete and utter disrespect for modern conventions of who you're not supposed to kill or abuse. Gilliam has never really cared one whit about the unspoken rules of movie plots, such as "don't harm children or animals." Not only are the kids terrorized by scary monsters, there's even a moment when a kitten is accidentally pulped by a torture device. A bit of gore spatters onto the cheek of Delatombe, who proceeds to taste it. Mmm, delicious!
The most horrifying point in the film is when a young girl named Sasha tries to help a struggling bird out of a well. She ends up being overcome by the most horrifying goop monster I have ever witnessed on screen. Every time the goop monster touches her flesh, it absorbs one of her organs. In this case, it erases her face and manifests two eyes and a mouth. It's like watching Pink Floyd's The Wall all over again. Sasha runs around flailing without eyes or a face as this little squat goop monster, grinning maniacally, sloshes after her. This scene seriously freaked me out. I'm not sure how Gilliam pulled off a PG-13 rating, but this film is certainly not for young children. Come to think of it, maybe it wasn't for me either.
The film's sets look completely fabricated and the special effects aren't quite up to par with today's standards. Still, that's part of the film's charm, in the same way that Sleepy Hollow was clearly a fairytale. Gilliam doesn't strive to make the film convincing, though he does filled it with flavor-bad accents, strange lighting, and over-the-top characters. I don't know if it was a blessing or a curse that my five years of Italian apparently paid off-I could understand what Cavaldi was saying!
As it turns out, the Mirror Queen (the delectable Monica Bellucci), holed up in a tower with no entrance, haunts the forest. The Woodsman (Tomas Hanak), a werewolf with a boomerang axe, serves her. She also has a variety of other critters under her control, including spiders, beetles, and animated trees. .
Opposing the Mirror Queen is Angelika (the equally delectable Lena Headey), a ranger-I mean huntsman-who has already lost several sisters to the Queen's machinations. She instantly becomes a love interest for the two brothers to squabble over. She also cast spells of a sort by believing in every superstition, including licking toads to navigate across the ever-changing enchanted forest. Good stuff for a Dungeons & Dragons adventure, actually
Unfortunately, it's also plotted like a bad D&D session. After the first encounter with the Mirror Queen, our heroes are sent packing back to France, whereupon he curses them for failing, threatens to torture Angelika, and then changes his mind and sends them back to the forest again, fully loaded with supplies. It strains credibility that the evil French Guy would do such a thing, but it seems as if the writer (Ehren Kruger) painted himself into a corner and couldn't figure a way out.
And back they go, better equipped to fight the Queen again. Only to fail. Again. And then have the French army arrive (on recently claimed Germany territory, remember), to burn the forest down to the ground. Which, if you think about it, is really a good idea when you've got problems with monsters in the forest.
Things spiral from there and more or less go the way you expect them to go. Bad guys are killed, good guys succeed in spite of their bumbling stupidity, and the climactic moment of the Mirror Queen's return just happens to coincide with every other major plot point. Given that this movie is about fairytales, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
But it bears mentioning that The Brothers Grimm isn't as much a crowd pleaser as it is a film filled with Message. And there are quite a few: fairytales aren't always nice, good people die, and sometimes it pays to believe in your dreams. It's a modern parable about fairytales, how they mirror reality, and the grim reflections that lurk beneath them.
Fairytales once served as warnings and parables, to scare children into doing the right thing at the right time. The Brothers Grimm is no different. That doesn't necessarily make it a movie for everyone though.