French-occupied Germany, 1812. Bogus witch-hunters Wilhelm (Damon) and Jacob (Ledger) Grimm are sent by psychotic French general Delatombe (Pryce) who has discovered their scam to uncover another suspected ersatz spook plot involving missing children
Terry Gilliam’s always had something of a Grimm sensibility — his early movies had a grimy, cruelly comical fairy-tale feel, something that’s infected much of his work ever since. So the pairing of Gilliam with the titular story-weaving siblings should have formed the perfect match for the director’s long-awaited return to the big screen.
Gilliam die-hards may be pleased to hear that that this fanciful fictionalisation of the Grimms’ early years couldn’t have been made by anyone else — it’s as ‘Gilliam’ a movie as Sleepy Hollow was a ‘Burton’. But, with its deliberately filth-slathered historical setting, its overly mannered comedy performances and its regular bursts of violent slapstick, this feels more like Gilliam circa 1980 than 2005; replace Heath Ledger and Matt Damon with Michael Palin and Eric Idle, switch the (frankly dire) CG with budget-defying physical effects and you have the movie he never made between Jabberwocky and Time Bandits.
It’s a fitfully entertaining affair. Ledger and Damon prove a great double act, their banter and bicker-work eliciting most of the laughs, Damon’s Will being the dashing braggard, Ledger’s Jake the awkward romantic. But every chuckle dies once Peter Stormare’s faux-Italian goon Cavaldi blunders into frame, spitting every line with such elaborate gesticulation that you wonder why Gilliam didn’t point out that this is a film, not a panto, even if it does refer to magic beans and eldritch mirrors.
Such references are, thankfully, neatly inserted, the idea being that Jake and Will were inspired to write their tales based on these ‘real’ events. Less neat, though, is this tale’s structure, which forever hops in and out of the dark, enchanted forest where Monica Bellucci’s undead queen has been abducting children, to such a degree that any suspense gradually evaporates.
Yet despite its flaws The Brothers Grimm is no disaster. With slyly anachronistic references to special effects and budgets, scripter Ehren Kruger takes satirical swipes at Hollywood. And Gilliam has a ball when it comes to the more horrific scenes — among those sure to haunt you are one involving a child-swallowing horse that spews spider-web from its mouth, and another in which a portly mud-monster steals a kiddie’s face. You just can’t help wishing that the whole movie was as effective as its better moments...
Gilliam at his best and his worst. His unleashed imagination yields some astounding results, but a lack of structural discipline and Stormares risible Cavaldi mean this is nothing more than an entertaining mess.