Once upon a time there was a director who hadn’t had a hit in a while and had endured some recent rough experiences (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote). But fortunately the magical world of cinema keeps a door open for great directors like Terry Gilliam (Brazil, 12 Monkeys) and for that he has blessed us with The Brothers Grimm.
Gilliam’s films usually offer a fascinating blend of surrealism, humor, fantasy, adventure and bit of horror. Here those elements come alive as the film follows the lives of the brothers Grimm – the cynical Will (Matt Damon) and the dreamer Jake (Heath Ledger) – the legendary fairytale scribes. The brothers travel around the Napoleonic countryside vanquishing demons, witches and other creatures in exchange for money. Reminiscent of The Three Amigos or more appropriately Ghostbusters, these con men aren’t what they seem to be. After the French authorities catch on to their scheme, they are they are forced to put their knowledge to the test in an enchanted forest where young maidens keep disappearing.
Gilliam and writer Ehren Krueger magically weave various fairytale elements into the story, including Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Hansel & Gretel and of course those magic beans that are stealthy planted into the beginning and sprout up as the movie progresses. And progress it does, with few slow spots, but the film only decelerates to inject some snide joke or witticism. The film clearly revolves a fairly tale around the brothers, or the group also known as Team Grimm. Like the characters they create in their stories, they have to rescue princesses, kiss toads and perform feats of wonder and sometimes stupidity.
Maybe Gilliam swallowed some magic beans while during the filming, because he gets charismatic performances from just about all who grace the screen. Health Ledger gives a goofily charming performance while even the often heckled Matt Damon (whose character has less to work with) offers a solid performance. Jonathan Pryce needed no special powers in his role as the deliciously dastardly General Delatombe. His facial expressions and comical accent, along with his penchants for torture, suppression and a good meal balance the film’s dark yet funny tones. But what’s an evil general without a good sidekick? Enter the most unusual Cavaldi (Peter Stormare), whose blackly comic turn as an uptight Italian henchman adds the right zest to already flavorful film. Cavaldi, seems like an over-the-top character from a children’s story; he might be sinister looking, but his bark is far more ominous than his bite.
As with most Gilliam films this one’s a looker. It’s his best looking (and indeed best) film since Brazil. The sensational atmosphere contains an offbeat array of castles, towers and villages, not to mention the darker torture chamber and enchanted forest settings. The film uses special effects to enhance rather than overpower.
The film may be a tough sell to today’s kids, as many probably wouldn’t know the famous brothers unless they happened to show up in a video game. Don’t think of this film as just an old story. It’s a marvelous fantastical concoction, created by one of the masters of the genre. Those who venture to see this enchanting picture might not live happily ever after, but will surely live happily for about two hours.