Either you’re a schnook for what we can call the Nicholas Meyer Conceit—pace The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, ironically commingling historical and fictional characters in period pulp—or you’re not. Call it creative irreverence for Western-culture sacred cows. I’m the only earthling besides Lem Dobbs’s mother who still likes Kafka, and for me Terry Gilliam’s new windup toy The Brothers Grimm is a daffy, genre-hash gambol, descendant of the Hammer Film school (if those B sides had ever been made with money and talent) and just as fabulously cartoon-Gothic as Sleepy Hollow. The concept reads like second nature: Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm (Matt Damon and Heath Ledger), steeped in lore and weathering life in Prussia during the Napoleonic occupation, work as scam artist ghostbusters for outlying villages troubled by superstition or crop blight or a particularly dark patch of forest. Until, of course, they are apprehended by the French and forced to investigate genuine child disappearances in a remote hamlet chockablock with Gilliam-esque filth, farm animal clutter, rag-dressed peasants, and wobbly Tudor architecture.
Gilliam-istes should anticipate an experience more akin to Jabberwocky than Brazil; quite correctly, the movie never seeks to trump the original Grimm fables or make them modern. Rather, Gilliam and screenwriter Ehren Kruger maintain a bald air of schoolkid gimcrackery, folding in iconography from over a dozen fairy tales but striving to make a girl in a red-hooded shawl or a stack of mattresses or a long-haired princess trapped in a high tower ordinary within the film’s Arthur Rackham–ish world. Wolves and hostile flora are prevalent concerns. Still, Grimm is never serious: Cabaret crudeness pervades the scenario as well as the performances. (Someone even mentions a town named Schwanzfeld.) Torturing Germans by applying land snails to their faces and hanging the brothers upside down over boiling something-or-other, Jonathan Pryce’s grinning, foppish French general is virtually a brother to John Cleese’s Holy Grail turret dweller. Damon, as the scheming, cynical Grimm with 1971 sideburns, is an able-bodied straight man, while Ledger, as the dreamer of the family, swan-dives into the movie with complete abandon—he doesn’t seem to be quite aware he’s in a Gilliam film and can therefore cram tongue in cheek. But they’re all buried by Peter Stormare as an Italian officer-executioner, who even as he punts a kitten into his torture chamber’s whirring blades bids to have us believe that Timothy Carey, the scariest and least savory of character actor cult gods, is still alive and kicking.
Noting that it’s the only major release of 2005 that makes hay of an illegal military occupation will only get you so far—Gilliam is an escapist, not just an escapism manufacturer, and for him history is still grist for Pythonian high jinks. At the same time, his tendencies, running back to Monty Python and the Holy Grail‘s on-location medieval chill, have always been rather Grimm, and the new movie adroitly conjures a thoroughly unidealized children’s-lit past, full of phobic nastiness and ridiculous mayhem. (“Don’t trust the trees,” Lena Headey’s all-business maiden warns the bros.) The magical mutation of a horse into a child-swallowing juggernaut has a queasy concreteness to it, and another sorcerous invasion—the mud at the bottom of the town’s well consumes another child and struggles to transform into a gingerbread boy—is positively Svankmajer-esque. It’s difficult not to relish Gilliam’s devotion to tangibility; at least half of what is digitizable in Grimm—shot as it was entirely in the Czech Republic—is in fact set design and props.
Naturally, the plot’s conclusive act isn’t quite as beguiling as the enigmas that trail up to it; Gilliam makes expensive studio films, which always require an abstruse but neatly shrink-wrapped story line and any number of unconvincing action sequences. Like Tim Burton’s, Gilliam’s filmic approach is curiously flat-earth—he visualizes only in terms of baroque composition, and the strain to wrestle his images and constructions into a traditional chase-and-fight dynamic is always palpable. It’s a burden he’ll always hump around; Gilliam thinks big, one shot at a time.
What would happen if Gilliam was funded to the teeth and cut loose? Would he even know how to exploit his own skylarking whims? Who cares: In most of its guises, The Brothers Grimm is old-school matinee candy, missing only a Harryhausen-monster simulacrum to make the time-tunnel frisson complete. (Burton would’ve thrown that in.) If only summer movies were, as a matter of course, this inventive, this modest, this interested—even derisively—in cultural legacies, this faithful to concept and setting (no skateboarding stunts! no genital jokes!). Reportedly plagued by Weinsteinian bulldozers in the making—to the degree that Gilliam halted production for half a year and made the upcoming Tideland before returning—the film nevertheless has the relaxed air of a rainy afternoon spent reading Robert E. Howard.