A Review of The Brothers Grimm, by Max Evry


“I reached the point where I wondered ‘Would I ever make another movie again?'”

These words were spoken by Terry Gilliam after a preview screening of his new movie “The Brothers Grimm” in New York City. During the Q and A with critic Joel Siegel, Gilliam looked a far piece from his shell-shocked appearance at the end of 2003’s “Lost in La Mancha”, which documented the collapse of his Don Quixote film a week into shooting. When “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” was shut down in 2000 following numerous on-set disasters, the director spent several years unsuccessfully trying to get another project underway, including an adaptation of the novel “Good Omens”. Then in 2003 producer Charles Roven, who had previously shepherded Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys” to the screen, presented him with ready-to-go-project “Grimm” and the maverick filmmaker was back in the saddle… almost.

“The studio said ‘Anyone but Gilliam, ’cause he’s trouble.'”- T.G.

Heath Ledger and Matt Damon as The Brothers Grimm

The “studio” in question was MGM, but after convincing the suits in charge that despite his recent setbacks he could turn out a commercial property with a large budget north of $80 million, Gilliam began pre-production in the Czech Republic. After MGM suddenly bailed on the film due to their merger with Sony, another set of brothers, Miramax mega-producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, came to the rescue by picking up the tab and agreeing to release the production through Dimension.

What followed was a series of clashes between the equally headstrong Weinsteins and Gilliam which included nixing a prosthetic nose star Matt Damon was to wear, firing Director of Photography Nicola Pecorini, and not allowing Samantha Morton to play the pivotal role of Angelika. Despite these intrusions on his vision, Gilliam completed principal photography and set to work finishing the picture, refusing to talk to the Weinsteins. “The Brothers Grimm” was set for release in November of 2004 and fans prepared themselves for the first Terry Gilliam film since 1998’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”… almost.

Suddenly Bob and Harvey Weinstein announced that they were leaving parent company Disney and they became embroiled in negotiating a protracted divorce from the Mouse House. Along with dozens of other Miramax/Dimension properties, “Grimm” was put on hold. This allowed Gilliam to take 6 months off and make a more personal project, an adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s cult novel “Tideland”, which lensed in Canada last fall and will premiere at the Toronto Film Festival next month.

Gilliam returned to post-production on “Grimm” with fresh eyes, and made several changes to the movie, which had so far not tested well with audiences. At the advice of fellow director Steven Soderbergh, he moved a flashback of the Grimm Brothers’ childhood to the beginning of the film. He also entirely excised the most expensive scene, a battle with giant moving trees, because his Monty Python cohort Terry Jones told him it was too climactic, leaving the rest of the movie feeling dry. It will appear on the DVD. After the NY screening, which received a healthy round of applause, Gilliam appeared rejuvenated by the experience and hopeful that audiences would come to see what is certainly his most broadly commercial film. Now that the long wait is over and everybody involved, including purportedly the Weinsteins, are happy with the picture, what can audiences expect to find when they come to the theater on August 26th?

“We live in an age where everything [for children] is sanitized, but these stories are meant to prepare kids for the big bad world… there may not be a gingerbread house, but there’s plenty of pervs out there.”- T.G.

Jonathan Pryce as Delatombe

“The Brothers Grimm” is a richly textured, highly intoxicating potion composed of one part magical whimsey, one part historical adventure, and altogether fun but weightless. The film centers around the world famous Grimm Brothers, Jake and Will, played by Heath Ledger and Matt Damon, who are con-men traveling from village to village holding fake exorcisms and vanquishing witches created using cheap tricks and stagecraft. Damon’s Will is the dominant one of the two, the consummate charmer who sells snake oil to the simple townsfolk while looking after Ledger’s meek, sensitive Jacob, his partner in Crime. The brothers are captured by the Napoleonic Army and sent to a small village to expose similar hoaxes, only to discover a bona fide curse involving 11 kidnapped girls, an axe-wielding lycanthrope, and a haunted forest ruled by a malevolent Queen.

In real life the brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm were academics who traveled through a fractured 19th Century Germany unified only by its language, and recorded the traditional folk tales that had been passed down orally through generations. They were cultural preservationists, whereas in the film they are presented as hucksters who happen to get caught up in a situation that resembles not one but several of the stories in the Grimm canon. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Elements of Cinderella, Hansel and Grethel, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, and Snow White, all tales the Grimm brothers recorded for posterity, are woven into the fabric of the story as if these were the events that inspired the authors. These homages are clever and adhere closer to the dark tone of the original stories than to watered-down candy-colored iterations of Disney or “Shrek”. For good measure there is also a subtle homage to The Princess and the Pea (the Queen has 20 mattresses) and a welcome cameo from the Gingerbread Man (“I taste good!”) who you’d want to hug if he didn’t resemble the tar baby from Brer Rabbit on acid.

There’s an unmistakable similarity in look and feel to Tim Burton’s 1999 “Sleepy Hollow”, another twist on a dark fairy tale, but “Grimm” is far more charming and less reliant on fetishistic violence. Thankfully the CGI is not overdone as in past offenders like “Van Helsing”, since all the sets including the vast forest were built practically, and in most scenes with computer imagery it is blended with these real surroundings. The production design by Guy Dyas, who did “X-2” and the upcoming “Superman Returns”, is breathtaking, and places him in the same level of film design as other masters of the macabre like Bo Welch, Rick Heinrichs, and Alex McDowell. From ridiculously elaborate torture devices to a baroque French dinner table with guests extending to infinity, there would be so much to marvel at if the viewer wasn’t so engrossed in the amount of detail and texture that has been created to subdue the more fantastical elements.

Lena Headey as Angelika

An able cast does a great deal to ground the fantasy in its own skewed reality. Damon does a 180 on his usual introverted loner persona by playing Will as the dashing scoundrel, leaving Ledger to play the oddball half of the duo. Ledger’s Jacob is in many ways the heart of the film, as he is less concerned with making money than in keeping detailed journals of his observations and imagination. He’s the fantasist who is looked down upon and ridiculed, a staple of Gilliam’s films such as the Baron in “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” or the young boy in “Time Bandits”. Much of the fun comes when Jacob becomes more and more in his element as the situation becomes stranger and stranger. “It’s like being in Jacob’s head!” exclaims Will as his inability to come to grips with the magic unspooling around him mounts.

Frequent Gilliam collaborator Jonathan Pryce (“Brazil”) plays French General Delatombe, a fairly cardboard villain who is a militaristic rehash of the same soulless bureaucrat Pryce played in “Munchausen”. Delatombe proves only a minor threat compared to the evil sorcery of the Mirror Queen. Played with relish by love goddess Monica Bellucci, who as Persephone provided the only two watchable things in the otherwise loathsome Matrix sequels. The Mirror Queen is a vain centuries-old witch who needs the blood of virgins to restore her beauty still visible in her “mirror mirror on the wall.”

Angelika, the trapper who guides the brothers through the forest, is played by lovely newcomer Lena Headey. She’s got the rugged edge of her character down, but unfortunately fails to ignite any sparks in an undercooked romantic triangle with the boys. One can’t help but wonder the extra dimension an actress of Samantha Morton’s caliber could have brought to the film, much as she did to her small but effective role in Speilberg’s “Minority Report”, but what’s done is done. Making up for the imbalance is standout Peter Stormare (“Fargo”), who steals the show as the trigger-happy Cavaldi, aide to Delatombe, who is there to make sure the brothers do their job. His watchdog character oozes so much sleaze and depravity that you can feel the brutishness in every off-kilter step he takes, yet every time he refers to Will and Jake as “the Grimmys” you can’t help but find him endearing. Stormare is like a small Swedish boy trapped in an unruly Italian battering ram!

Devoid of boring scenes showing thousands of CGI soldiers or creatures to barrage our senses into oblivian, the film is large without being epic, clever without being cute, and smart without ever apologizing for it. There are many plot points in Ehren Kruger’s script that could have been clarified, such as the ultimate fate of Angelika the female warrior’s father, and many characters that could have been fleshed out more, including a little more depth to the squabbling relationship between the titular brothers. The film makes the brave assumption that the viewer is smart enough to fill in the blanks and allow it to get on telling its story, which it does kinetically at a ferocious pace.

“Adults react [to fantasy] more cause they know more, and it resonates with the real world.”- TG

“The Brothers Grimm” is certainly a quality fantasy film, which remains a gutter genre despite all the piles of money and Oscars being thrown at it of late. “Grimm” has all the trappings of great fairy tales but doesn’t hold back and keeps the tone dark and spooky throughout, occasionally punctuating it with Python-esque humor and funny musical cues. The only issue I had was that it didn’t have much weight to it. Gilliam made the similar “Baron Munchausen” in ’89 and that film had a more powerful message about the power of dreams and dealing with old age. This film is much more about sound and fury than with imparting any real point, but Gilliam-lite is way better than no Gilliam at all, and most genre films wish they were this smart.

More to explore

Films in depth

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
The Zero Theorem
The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus
The Brothers Grimm
Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas
12 Monkeys
The Fisher King
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Time Bandits