Director Terry Gilliam delves back into fantasy and the role of stories with this 2005 film starring Matt Damon and Heath Ledger. The film takes the position that the brothers Grimm weren’t just chroniclers of stories, but actively participated in the creation and embellishment of those stories… as a pair of traveling con men. With some assistants (Richard Ridings and Mackenzie Crook, the latter of whom was part of another bungling duo in Pirates of the Caribbean), they stage elaborate set-ups to trick gullible villagers into paying them to “exorcise” the witches, ghosts, and demons that purportedly plague Germany in the early 1800s.
They end up getting arrested, however, by the French occupation, under General Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce) and his semi-psychotic Italian lieutenant Cavaldi (Peter Stormare). Their sentences will be commuted if they agree to help Delatombe out with another village that seems to be plagued by the same sort of fake supernatural shenanigans the Grimms get up to, but with a more sinister motive: 10 girls have disappeared from the village, which is near a “haunted” forest that the villagers are afraid to enter. The Grimms’ new mission? Enter the forest, rescue the girls if they’re still alive, and debunk the hoax.
Problem is, when they get there, it doesn’t appear to be a hoax…
The Grimms had an astonishingly good special effects budget.
When the Grimms arrive in Marbaden, they find the villagers largely unwilling to talk to them, and wholly unwilling to enter the forest, even while fearing for their remaining daughters. The only one willing to accompany them is a female trapper, Angelika (Lena Headey). Upon entering the forest, they find that trees move on their own, and various monsters seem to lurk in the area. The difficulties they encounter in the forest and the village highlight the differences between the brothers. Jacob (Ledger) is a romantic, immediately smitten with Angelika, and is sufficiently superstitious to take the curse of the forest at face value. Will (Damon) fancies himself a ladies’ man, but doesn’t exactly hit it off with Angelika; more importantly for their adventure, he’s a skeptic to the core, and is convinced that whatever is behind the curse of the forest, it’s just another con man like them only with greater skill. The bickering and fighting between the brothers is as responsible for making the movie enjoyable as the adventuring itself is.
Along with them is Cavaldi, who is not only superstitious, but fearful… and more than a little unhinged. He swings from affable to insane at the drop of a hat (or hairpiece) and manages to straddle that thin line between appalling and hilarious. (The bit with the kitten will horrify most of the audience, either at the event itself or at themselves for laughing at it.)
Nothing like having to trust your back to a guy you wouldn’t turn it on.
The acting in this is great. Apparently Gilliam originally wanted Johnny Depp to play the part of Will, but producer Bob Weinstein didn’t think Depp had the star power (Pirates of the Caribbean came out halfway through production. Whoops.) To be honest, I think it probably came out better this way; while Will is the more dynamic personality, I think Depp might have gone a bit too far over the top with him. Damon makes Will an extroverted, energetic character while at the same time keeping him as the down-to-earth brother who is just trying to make sure his “mooncalf” brother doesn’t get himself hurt. And Jacob Grimm is another one of those transformative roles for Heath Ledger, who is almost unrecognizable as the nerdy bookworm who really just wants to see a real life fantasy. Stormare is energetic and creepily hilarious as Cavaldi, Headey portrays Angelika as a woman who truly does seem capable of holding her own in a fight, and Monica Bellucci has a role in which she gets to play elegant creepiness for all its worth.
The storyline is also pretty strong. A lot of it will naturally be familiar, being based on Grimm fairy tales, but it plays with them in ways that make them novel again. And this being a Terry Gilliam film, it also plays with the audience’s expectations. The character paths for the brothers and Angelika may be fairly standard, but Cavaldi’s is a bit harder to see coming from his portrayal in the film, and it’s unlikely very many comic relief characters in films get the treatment that Bunst and Hidlick (the Grimms’ assistants) do here.
Fantasy films being what they are, a certain amount of special effects usage has to play into the quality of the film. With the exception of the werewolf, everything here looks superb; even that is actually pretty good compared to most examples, it’s just a case where the technology still isn’t quite up to the task of making it look believable. It’s less a failure of the film and more just that it’s attempting something extremely difficult. The rest, from the moving trees to the swarms of bugs all look believably supernatural and disturbing.
With The Raven coming out this past week, and apparently not setting the critical world on fire, I’m happy to say that there’s at least one quality film taking a fanciful inspiration from the lives of authors. I don’t know what the real Brothers Grimm would have thought about The Brothers Grimm. They’d probably be pleased their stories lasted so long, and hopefully would be amused at the idea that they themselves were turned into a story. It’s a fitting enough tribute; the film is as dark and entertaining as anything the Grimms themselves ever put to page.