Fairy tales and myths aren’t exactly groundbreaking territories for director Terry Gilliam. The topics have been part of several of Gilliam’s previous movies, including the successful Twelve Monkeys and cult-favorite Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Gilliam finally incorporates existing stories into his movie with The Brothers Grimm, a spin on the famed authors of many time honored fairy tales.
Let’s make sure this is clear from the start: these are not the factual Brothers Grimm who actually set down the fairy tales of Snow White, Rose Red, and other familiar characters. Those two scholars would probably have turned their noses up at being portrayed in such a manner as this, but that sort of thing is what makes Gilliam films so much fun. Just like he turned legendary moments in time upside-down with Time Bandits, so goes The Brothers Grimm.
These brothers are little more than con-artists, taking advantage of local legends and myths to dupe commoners out of money by making it look like they are exorcising villages of their demons, witches, and other nefarious creatures. Will (Matt Damon) is the opportunist, a man who sees the rational explanation behind all of the oddities the brothers encounter, who loves the ladies wherever he can find them, and who sets up all of the business deals for the two brothers. Jacob (Heath Ledger) in many ways is the exact opposite. He is the dreamer who records all of the legends the two encounter (one assumes Jacob’s book of records eventually becomes the tales themselves). The trouble begins, however, when the Brothers are sent to a town tormented by true magic – the stuff Jacob dreams of and Will can’t explain away.
The whole idea of con-men who encounter a true version of their own con has been done before, and there’s nothing terribly original with the idea here, other than the idea that the con and the storyline revolves around familiar elements from well-known stories. I counted almost two dozen direct references to different fairy tales, which makes watching the film fun in a scavenger hunt sort of way, trying to catch all of the different references. That’s good, because on its own the movie isn’t quite as interesting.
Gilliam seems to have trouble figuring out just what kind of story he’s trying to tell here, and that’s reflected in the jumbled storyline. One moment he’s telling a tale of France-occupied Germany, the next we’re encountering the primary storyline of a mysterious queen locked in a tower. As a result all of the stories feel splintered and, even at the film’s climax, the movie doesn’t completely draw the audience in.
Despite an oddly uncompelling storyline, the performances in the film are worth mentioning. Ledger and Damon each play against type, with Damon getting to play the leading man who always gets the girl, while Ledger plays the more bookish type, getting to try his hand at some solid comedy. Although both performances are excellent, Ledger gets the better hand, finally showing enough versatility that I can no longer just think of him as the “good looking leading man” type – a category I had previously mentally sorted Ledger into. Here he proves he doesn’t always have to be good looking, and he’s willing to try meatier roles. Hopefully he’ll take that with him into the future. Peter Stormare goes way over the top with his role as Cavaldi, an Italian torture artist who refers to himself in the 3rd person incessantly. Cavaldi is one of those strange pieces of the puzzle that doesn’t quite fit here. One minute he’s the antagonist of the film, prodding the Brothers forward; he next he’s helping them out after an unexplained change of heart. Since the character doesn’t fit, and the performance is outlandish at best, Stormare comes across as one of the weakest parts of the movie, a sad place for such a talented actor to be.
For some reason, Gilliam films always look like they were filmed ten years before the time they fit into. Often this is due to the special effects, and The Brothers Grimm is no different. While most of the compositing work is invisible (as good effects should be), the more obvious effects range in quality from mediocre to just flat out poor. If the story had been more compelling, Gilliam could have gotten away with inferior effects, however that’s not the case. The visual result is a cross between Gilliam’s Jabberwocky and the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, as done by Sam Raimi in The Evil Dead days.
Sadly, while still somewhat enjoyable, The Brothers Grimm marks another inferior film for an extremely talented director. It feels like Gilliam hasn’t truly had a cinematic success since the mid-ninety’s Twelve Monkeys and one gets the feeling, after the failure of La Mancha, the director barely threw his interest in this movie. Alas, The Brothers Grimm gets no “happily ever after”, as the movie probably won’t even gain a true cult status on home video.
The DVD release for Brothers Grimm helps shed some light on the splintered film, starting with the director’s commentary where Gilliam offers that as the director he’s kind of responsible for the film (his first comment on the track) and that he originally had turned down doing the film because it didn’t really interest him. Really? Then why did Gilliam end up doing the film? That information isn’t really offered, but it explains a lot about the movie.
The commentary track actually finds Gilliam a lot more light-hearted than he tends to be with many interviews these days. There is little talk about studio interference, although Gilliam does sound quite sour about how movies are made these days, and why certain decisions are made. He revels in his victories when he can find them, describes with glee the actors he got to work with, and never really shuts up, providing a thorough commentary for the film.
The deleted scenes also offer some explanation for the film’s choppy storyline, although not as much as you’d expect. While it does explain why some characters went from being separated to suddenly being together, most of the deleted scenes would have fleshed out storylines not included in the film – particularly involving Stormare’s Cavaldi’s interactions with General Delatombe (Jonathan Price in an almost equally over the top role). Most of the scenes are best left deleted, but for those who want more, Gilliam adds a commentary to these explaining why each one was cut. He even suggests fans might re-edit the film inserting the deleted scenes back into the film if they prefer it that way. Gilliam is well aware of the powers of modern day technology and rabid fandom, even if he can’t integrate that technology into his own films.
There are two short featurettes, “Bringing the Fairy Tale to Life”, which is a brief making-of/summarized advertisement, and “The Visual Magic of The Brothers Grimm”, which points out some of the more invisible effects of the movie. While both featurettes are interesting, neither truly delves into how the film was made, really only leaving viewers with a brief glimpse of what went into the film. This is a real shame since, listening to the actors tell it, Gilliam is a real delight to work with because of the energy and fun he brings to any given project. That’s a different side of Gilliam that isn’t really shown in commentaries or most interviews these days, although it is evident in very short parts of the featurettes. Giving the audience more of a “fly on the wall” view of how the film was made might have warmed more people up to Gilliam as both a director and a person. Instead the former Python leaves his persona as that of a grumpy, frustrated artist.
While The Brothers Grimm is a pretty standard release these days the DVD, like the movie, left me wanting more – wanting a reason to like the release more than I actually did. If I’m wrong, and the film does pick up a cult status, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bigger edition come out further down the road (Gilliam even hints that such a thing could be possible one day in his commentary). Without a way to fix the flaws of the film itself though, no DVD release is going to be worth a lot of time or effort for the studio or the audience.