Appellate Judge James A. Stewart is still waiting for Terry Gilliam's version of Good Omens...and expects to be waiting a long, long time. In the meantime, here's a good "Once upon a time" story.
"This has nothing to do with the real Brothers Grimm, other than the
fact that they were collectors of German folk tales and we owe them a lot of
thanks. So instead of thanking them, we're using them."
The real Brothers Grimm were academics who preserved German folk tales. If you're looking for the story behind their work, you'll have to look elsewhere; this Brothers Grimm is the latest bit of dark whimsy from former Monty Python's Flying Circus animator Terry Gilliam (The Fisher King, Brazil).
Facts of the Case
"Once Upon A Time…1706."
Young Jacob Grimm comes home with a handful of magic beans. He's proud of his purchase, but for some reason, his brother Will is upset, attacking him and wrestling him to the ground. Maybe Jacob should have done some comparison shopping or checked out Consumer Reports first. Oh, well…
Through cinematic magic (which has little to do with magic beans), we're transported forward 15 years to "French-occupied Germany," where the now-grown-up brothers are taking on the grim job of witchbusters. Seeing them in action, we believe, but wait…the witch takes off "her" mask to reveal a Grimm confederate. The whole thing's been done with pulleys and smoke. Will (Matt Damon, The Bourne Identity) and Jacob (Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain) are nothing but con artists, taking money from poor, superstitious villagers to exorcise non-existent monsters.
There's trouble brewing in the town of Marbaden, since something that's really in the woods really is claiming the town's girls. The Brothers Grimm are encouraged to investigate—by some angry French occupiers who'd rather try them as frauds. In Marbaden, they meet beautiful trapper Angelika (Lena Headey, Ripley's Game), who serves as their guide for their journeys into the dark, dangerous forest. As Jacob falls for Angelika and the French become suspicious of the Grimm conclusions, the stakes increase. The disappearances are linked to a witch sleeping in a tower (Monica Bellucci, The Matrix Revolutions), making for a Grimm journey, Terry Gilliam style.
"It makes it easier to live with a happy ending that isn't totally," Terry Gilliam says in his commentary.
The eccentric director nicknamed Captain Chaos tries to fit in a little bit here, delivering a big-budget ($80 million) adventure spectacle, It didn't capture everyone's fancy, taking in just under $38 million in the United States, but it will delight Gilliam's fans. For this one, he creates a Germany of the 1800s that never truly existed, the nightmare world of the original Grimm fairy tales (which he notes were lightened up by the Grimms themselves after their initial appearance). Occasionally, you can tell that his forest was grown on a soundstage, since the moving trees don't look precisely like actual trees, but its greens and browns soon become real. Gilliam himself points out in commentary that modern Prague shows up in the background here and there, but I was willing not to notice after a while. Even the fake witch battle in the early scenes felt real within Gilliam's fairy-tale world until I saw the strings attached.
Whimsical-looking devices are a favorite device of Gilliam's, whether they're benign, like the fake divining device Will Grimm uses to check out the woods ahead; devious, like the pulleys and levers that create the fake witch's flight; or deadly, like the torture devices in French Gen. Delatombe's (Jonathan Pryce, Brazil) dungeon—augmented most sinisterly, as Gilliam points out, by an orchestra playing (torture) chamber music and a staff preparing dinner in the same space. One scene that brings out the humanity amid the devices shows Will reacting with horror to brother Jacob's apparent crushing against a tree by his own catapult device.
Like many movies in this vein (A Knight's Tale comes to mind), the dialogue mixes fairy-tale snippets like "mirror, mirror on the wall" with discussion of "career paths" and other anachronistic concepts, but small touches of whimsy and the care taken in crafting the look of the picture make it something more.
"He's inspired us, inspired the eccentric quality out of everyone," Heath Ledger says in "Bringing the Fairytale to Life." Ledger seems to have hit the nail on the head, since the performances throughout blend whimsy and grotesquery well. He and Damon make the brothers likeable, even in treachery. As Jacob, Ledger grows from the con artist who wishes to believe his fairy tales into the film's heroic center, his motives changing from survival to a desire to save the lady in distress and rescue the village's children. Matt Damon plays the slicker, foppish Will with a rascally charm, the small gestures that shape his character honed to a fine point. Lena Headey manages to be tough and soft at the same time as the trapper Angelika, able to skin a rabbit with ease (it's plastic, since Headey is a vegetarian), yet made human by her concern for her lost sisters and father…and, eventually, for the Brothers Grimm. As Delatombe, Jonathan Pryce's calm, self-centered nastiness stands out among the smaller parts. One doesn't even realize, until the commentary, that some of the cast members were part of Gilliam's crew, pressed into rare on-screen service. Now there's some acting that deserves credit.
The transfer mostly shows off the rich colors and abstract camera angles of Gilliam's forest to good effect. There's a little bit of bleeding orange during a forest fire, but I was otherwise impressed. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound comes across well, with background music gently augmenting the dialogue and ambient noises. For example, the realistic hoofbeats, background animal noises, and clicks of cocking guns build tension as the brothers first survey the village of Marbaden, with the strains of music floating through as Will commits to saving the village's girls.
"This is why I love DVDs. I can completely destroy the illusion of my film," Gilliam jokes in his feature commentary, as he points out that extras in one scene appear and disappear because the Czech actors weren't always available during shooting. Gilliam provides a lot of detail here on everything involved in the production, but it doesn't ruin the experience. He's a genial font of knowledge, modestly sharing credit with everyone involved, and the details he points out make the second viewing worthwhile. I will point out that some of the tidbits in the feature commentary overlapped with the two featurettes, and that his commentary on the deleted scenes isn't particularly vital. (Although I do recommend a peek at these without commentary, since there's one dazzling CGI scene that got the axe.)
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This isn't a Disney-fied fairy tale. The dark tone of the movie, with scenes like horses swallowing children and cats getting caught up in fans, probably makes it something you wouldn't want to screen with your little ones—unless you want them waking up screaming and crying in the middle of the night. If they're a little older, make sure they see the featurettes that reveal the fakery; it should help to calm their fears.
From an adult point of view, watching the grotesque world of Gilliam's imagination come to life is still frightening at times, since my disbelief was suspended by his filmmaking skill at least as often as the unfortunate Grimm brothers were suspended from racks or held in midair by miscellaneous witchly spells. But the fear generated by an unreal world in fiction helps us cope with fear of a real world. Hey, isn't that what a fairy tale should be?
Not guilty. Heck, Terry Gilliam could probably even make a fun movie out of Ocean's Thirteen.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Buena Vista
• Commentary by Terry Gilliam
Review content copyright © 2006 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.