The odd thing about Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm is that the movie is infinitely better when Gilliam and his screenwriter Ehren Kruger are creating something new rather than making reference to a fairy tale we are familiar with. When Hans and Greta are walking through the forest, leaving bread crumbs behind them, or when the Gingerbread Man takes a bite out of himself, I can feel the creaking of the screenplay. But when a girl gets swallowed by a horse . . . .
The brothers are scam artists who con townspeople out of money by creating fake ghosts and witches that they, luckily, know how to slay for a small fee. They use elaborate, early 19th century special effects that manage to look impressively like early 21st century CGI. The reveal of the tools of their trade serves only to make the viewer very aware that they are watching a movie -- -- there is simply no way that their equipment could create such elaborate illusions. And considering that this is the central conceit of the film, it seems questionable to sit back and say, "And now let me just suspend my disbelief." As I often do during movies.
Wilhelm Grimm (Matt Damon) is the carnival barker of the pair, the one that asks for the money and gets the girl. He also plays Scully to his brother Jacob's (Heath Ledger) Mulder, who not only writes down the fairy tales, but believes in them as well. They are captured by the French General Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce) and told that they are going to deal with a problem German village, Marbaden, whose inhabitants believe that their forest is cursed and is stealing their daughters; the general believes that the Grimms' familiarity with scams will help them deal with the villagers' problem. Their chaperone is Cavaldi, an Italian torture artist, overacted by Peter Stormare with the same horrible marble-mouthed Italian accent that he recently employed as a mob boss (!) on TV's Prison Break. It made me long for a time when his characters enjoyed "total filking silence," especially since Cavaldi loves to hear himself talk.
Once they arrive in town, the brothers employ a beautiful, tough guide, Angelika (Lena Hedley) to take them into the forest and provide expository material. In the end, the forest turns out to be genuinely cursed, to the delight of Jacob and annoyance of Will. He continually remarks on the large budget of their opposition, who he believes have mocked up the haunting of the forest. Which comes to another problem I had with the movie: the characters were quite aware that they were being recorded. The filmmakers have them say things simultaneously, and use movie cliches as varied as the bulletproof vest reveal and the sarcastic "Well, I think that went well," after it most certainly did not.
Like I said earlier, when Gilliam is having fun, free of the constraints of our own knowledge of fairy tales, the movie is passable but certainly not great. It certainly has some thrilling moments of inspired creepiness and odd fun, such as when Angelika licks a toad so it will tell them how to get out of the woods, but the movie fails to be engaging on a character level. Gilliam's overuse of CGI is problematic as well, since it is supposed to be enchanting but ends up being disconnecting instead. The shots with minimal CGI are well done, using the director's trademark showy camera movements that fit the story well.
Overall, Brothers Grimm is inoffensive but lackluster and generally a disappointment when compared to other Gilliam work. I was hoping for a feeling of spontaneous fun mixed with familiar fairy tales, but ended up with characters I had no connection to and a mixed bag of some funny moments and some thrills. Overall this feels more garter snake than python.
The DVD extras are meager. The deleted scenes largely should have remained deleted. In fact, I felt most were included, not unadmirably, as a way to give his friends on the special effects team a little more recognition. However, listening to Gilliam's commentary on the deleted scenes, I was heartened by the fact that he cut the most expensive and elaborate sequence, a fight between Will, Jacob and Angelika and a sinister tree, for the sake of the artistry of the movie. Gilliam also provides a commentary on the feature, but being that it is him alone, it does not have the spark that crew commentaries have.
Also included are two documentaries, "Bringing the Fairy Tale to Life," an expectedly self-congratulatory look at the movie through interviews with the actors and crew, all of whom seem to be trying to be very polite, especially toward Gilliam, in that way that cast and crew usually are on DVD extras. It does point out his attention to detail, which I appreciated, because if there is anything that can be said about Gilliam beyond his love of mythological magic realism, it is that he is very attentive to his visuals. And attuned to the importance of geese.
The special effects documentary, "The Visual Magic of Brothers Grimm", spends a lot of time talking about the difficulty of animating hair, but its most interesting tidbits are about how they manage the effects for Monica Belluci during the climactic scene of the movie. The problem, though, with your crew talking as if they are amazed at the fact there are 800 digital shots, is when each of those shots is evident to any vaguely savvy sci-fi viewer.