It’s been a great year for penguins, but a rough year for children. Michael Jackson is free to continue spooning young boys; Willy Wonka has recruited new kids to torture in his chocolate factory; and fairytale juveniles are kidnapped and caged in Terry Gilliam’s latest movie The Brothers Grimm. Who knew child abuse could be so entertaining?
The Brothers Grimm are best known for their acclaimed collection of folklore and fairytales, including "Cinderella", "Little Red Riding Hood", and "Hansel & Gretel". Their stories appear sweet and dainty, until their ugly underbellies are exposed and people are punished for their immoral behavior. The tales themselves are dreary, but Disney was sure to make them as cutesy as possible when turning them into feature films. Terry Gilliam (Twelve Monkeys, Brazil) has gone the opposite route and adapted the stories to be frightening and violent, and therefore a lot more suitable for an adult audience.
Will and Jake Grimm are real brothers who existed in the 1800’s, but the movie is a fictionalized and fantastical retelling of their journeys. Will (Matt Damon) is a suave, pragmatic realist who doesn’t believe in magic, while Jake (Heath Ledger) is a bumbling, sweet-natured dreamer who thinks life itself is a fairytale. They do not have much in common, except for a shared desire to make money without actually working. They travel the German countryside, occupied by the French under the Napoleonic invasion, conducting phony exorcisms of ghosts and demons in exchange for bags of glowing coins. Gullible onlookers watch in awe, completely unaware that they are being conned by the Grimms and two accompanying actors who have made an art of the façade.
All good schemes must come to an end, and they are finally confronted and sentenced by Napoleon’s Army. Instead of accepting gruesome executions, they cut a deal to visit the village of Marbaden, where a plethora of children have vanished into a possessed forest with strangling trees and malicious wolves. “The forest is enchanted but never turned against us until now, under French occupation!” cries a concerned mother at a town meeting. As it turns out, even shrubbery hates the French. Although they are frauds, Jake and Will explore the forest with beautiful, tomboyish guide Angelika (Lena Headey) in search of missing children, including Little Red Hiding Hood and other young storybook wonders.
The culprit is the evil Mirror Queen (Monica Bellucci). Resting at the top of a brick tower within the forest, she snatches up children to steal their youth and beauty. She has been alive for 500 years under a cursed spell, lying in bed like an old, decrepit zombie that makes Sloth from the movie Seven look desirable by comparison. Only in the mirror does she resemble her former self, but she will stop at nothing to regain her title as the ‘fairest of them all’. The Brothers Grimm scour the forest fighting off CGI animals and demonic bushes, as their reality begin to resemble one of their own renowned fairy tales.
The Brothers Grimm is a magical breath of fresh air in a time of remakes, sequels, and extinction of originality. The visuals jump out like the pages of a children’s book, brought vividly to life by bursting colors and expressive characters. The Grim Brothers’ fairy tales are incorporated into the movie in very sharp ways, such as kissing a frog for directions. The film is riddled with inside jokes that will be funny to people familiar with the stories, and fly right over the heads of those who aren’t. Then again, if you don’t know the story of "Snow White", you may want to scold your parents for robbing you of a proper childhood.
While certainly more commercial than Gilliam’s previous films, The Brothers Grimm may struggle to find a target audience. It’s far too violent for kids, and adults who don’t appreciate its creativity will find it to be an unapologetic assault on their senses. The humor succeeds when it is discrete and referential, but the corny one-liners fall flat, which makes me wonder why Ehren Krueger (The Ring) was chosen as the best person to write the screenplay. Although it suffers from genre confusion and tries to take on too many themes at once, the film is an enjoyable blend of history and modern-day wit reminiscent of Shakespeare In Love. It’s good to see imagination making a comeback.