Since shedding his skin as a member of Monty Python's Flying Circus and trading it in for a director's chair, filmmaker Terry Gilliam has set himself up as the David in Hollywood's frequent David and Goliath situation. Whether battling a megalithic corporation for control of his ahead-of-its-time artistic vision (Brazil), turning Hollywood hunks into bug-eyed madmen (12 Monkeys) or struggling to shore up a crumbling dream project (check out Lost in La Mancha), Gilliam has been a brilliantly subversive visionary. Even in their most compromised state (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, perhaps), Gilliam's films have been engagingly unique. Odd then, that his latest project should feel so unmistakably Gilliam and—at the same time—so resolutely pedestrian.
The Brothers Grimm employs good lookin' boys Matt Damon and Heath Ledger as Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, purveyors of fine European fairy tales since round about the turn of the 19th century. Far from a biography, this far-fetched fantasy flick casts our brotherly heroes as a couple of Napoleonic Era con men traveling from town to town offering to subdue whatever ghosts, goblins, witches or other supernatural ills are around. Of course, if the town is deficient in the supernatural area, the brothers are more than happy to provide it. With a couple of actor accomplices and some fancy special effects, the brothers stage elaborate mock battles with assorted "monsters" for the (non)benefit of the local yokels. With their crazy doohickeys and "protective" uniforms, these Brothers Grimm resemble nothing so much as Ye Olde Ghostbusters.
The fortunes of these shady brothers change one fateful day, however, when they stumble across Marbaden, a Black Forest burg that is allegedly haunted by a bloodthirsty witch. Turns out, of course, that this legend is frighteningly true. A number of little girls have been kidnapped from this woebegone village, all of whom seem to have fallen under the spell of a pagan witch queen who haunts the forest looking for victims.
Now the brothers are called upon to pluck up their meager courage, use their hard-won skills in folklore and figure out how to deal with a real supernatural threat for a change.
Damon and Ledger have fun with their characters, here simply known as Will and Jake. Will is the more cynical of the two, happy to shine on the superstitious locals for their last few coins. Jake, however, is the dreamer of the duo, who wants desperately to believe in a world of fairies and trolls and is secretly happy to find a real live witch, even if she does want to suck the souls from their bodies. As the undead witch-queen, always-mesmerizing Italian beauty Monica Bellucci (The Passion of the Christ, The Matrix Reloaded) is seriously underused. On the other hand, always-nutty character actor Peter Stormare (Fargo, Constantine) more than makes his presence known as a wiggy (literally) Napoleonic soldier assigned to keep the brothers focused on the task at hand.
The film does an interesting job of weaving bits and pieces of Brothers Grimm folklore throughout the film. Witches, werewolves, magic mirrors, lonely princesses entombed in tall towers and little girls wandering around in red riding hoods are just a few of the film's rich background details. The high-concept script by the suddenly ubiquitous Ehren Kruger (Scream 3, The Ring, The Ring 2, The Skeleton Key) is stuffed to the point of overcrowded with comedy, scares, fantasy and acts of derring-do.
With its Goth-gorgeous setting and comically creepy story line, viewers could easily be forgiven for mistaking this as a Tim Burton film. The Brothers Grimm looks, for all the world, like it was shot back-to-back with Burton's Sleepy Hollow. That's not the best compliment in the world for a director whose films have always stood out from the crowd. In the end, it's easy to see what in the script appealed to Gilliam: It's got mud, monsters and a wild sense of imagination. The Brothers Grimm is arguably Gilliam's most mainstream film and should appeal to a wide audience of kids and adults. But, unfortunately, that's not the best realm for the rebellious Gilliam to inhabit. Not quite fanciful enough, never exactly real, The Brothers Grimm ends up a fun but fractured fairy tale.