A Nightmare on Fairy Tale Lane: The Brothers Grimm (2005)

Director Terry Gilliam’s ersatz mess, The Brothers Grimm, mostly left me feeling sorry for the actors. Loosely set in French-occupied Germany in the early 1800s, the story concerns two brothers who happened to write the famous book of folk stories and fairy tales, but otherwise Wilhem (Matt Damon) and Jacob Grimm (Heath Ledger) fraudulently battle evil spirits for a fee. A kind of Ghostbusters duo of the revolutionary era, they battle an imaginary mill witch by using special effects (a man in costume being lowered on a pulley) to show the dumb locals that they actually killed the creature. Then an evil French general named Delatombe shows up (Jonathan Pryce, a fine actor wasted on the role), and he tortures the Grimm’s two servants by hanging them upside down in chairs and attaching glass boxes full of snails around their heads. Delatombe wants Team Grimm to go solve the mystery of the Marboden woods where various girls have been disappearing as of late. Once Delatombe trundles them off to Marboden, Wilhem and Jacob hook up with a guide Angelika (Lena Headey), who first shows up looking incongruously like a supermodel skinning and gutting a dead rabbit. They then have various adventures in the woods where there are lots of crows, a computer-generated wolf, and trees out of The Wizard of Oz that tend to move about on their roots when no one is looking.

Terry Gilliam, the original animator for the Monty Python troupe, has directed good films in his day, mostly back in the 1980s and 90s with Brazil and 12 Monkeys. His whimsical eccentric style looks mannered and labored now, perhaps due to the obligation to provide the theme park elements of a kid-oriented blockbuster. I guess it sounded good to some studio to tie in multiple Grimm stories such as Cinderella, Snow White, and Little Red Riding Hood with Harry Potter-esque magic spells and computer- generated special effects, but the result reminded me of Tim Burton’s flailing efforts in the equally bloated Sleepy Hollow. Sometimes a simple old story should just stay a simple old story, and Hollywood’s attempts to cut and paste multiple classic narratives onto a Disney-style whiz-bang adventure ride ends up being jumbled, incoherent, and just plain sad. There are too many ill-lit characters running around and panting in the supernatural woods, and Gilliam has major problems with tone. He doesn’t know whether to be funny or scary or magical or what, but cartoonish characters do not blend well with others who have back stories and motivations. Individual scenes were so poorly staged, I had difficulty understanding what was going on.

Ehren Kruger, who also wrote The Ring and the recent Skeleton Key, seems to have eaten some forest mushrooms while writing this script, which once again ends up with an old evil spirit (like the wicked witch of Snow White) who uses youngsters to retain her youth. When she says something profound like, “Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” I think we are meant to congratulate ourselves on recognizing the reference, but all the recreations of Grimm stories come off as painful clichés. Occasionally, amidst all of the running around, something interesting happens, like a girl getting engulfed by an animated mud ball that vaguely resembles the Pillsbury Doughboy. I think the filmmakers wanted us to care about the fact that Jacob is the dreamer who accepted the magic beans for a cow when he was young, and Wilhem isn’t. Over time, the Grimm brothers find out that they are taking part in a legend. Jacob claims that “the story is happening to us NOW. We can give it a happy ending.” A happy ending for me would be to forget I ever saw the film.