It’s unfortunately appropriate that “The Brothers Grimm,” Terry Gilliam’s first completed film in seven years, is being released through Dimension Films, the Miramax subsidiary that distributed the “Scream” franchise.
Very loosely based on the lives of the 19th century German fairy-tale writers, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, the movie revels in horror-movie images: werewolves, shape-shifting witches, menacing tree branches that threaten permanent entanglement, a child who is robbed of his eyes, nose and mouth, and lots and lots of scampering bugs.
The choppy script is the work of “Scream 3’s” screenwriter, Ehren Kruger, who also wrote “The Ring” and its recent sequel. Matt Damon plays Will and Heath Ledger is the more gullible Jake, but their characters are so inadequately defined that it’s hard to tell them apart. No wonder the movie ends with so little understanding of why one of the two should get the girl (Lena Headey).
When Laurence Harvey and Karl Boehm played the brothers in MGM’s 1962 Cinerama extravaganza, “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm,” the result was schmaltzy and unnecessarily reductive. But at least Harvey and Boehm created a relationship between the brothers that made sense on its own simplistic kiddie-movie terms.
Damon and Ledger are simply stranded here, playing the Grimms as con artists and fake exorcists, and not even the estimable Jonathan Pryce can save them. One of the great scene-stealers of our time, he gave the most memorable performance in Gilliam’s best film, “Brazil,” but here he’s stuck in a monotonous role that defeats all of his attempts to make it interesting.
Kruger’s script was conceived as an allegory about the Napoleonic invasion of Germany, with the Enlightenment doing battle with the myth-fed German culture that produced such Grimm classics as “Rapunzel,” “Hansel and Gretel” and “Snow White” — all of which are woven into the main narrative as examples of the vibrant folk culture the Grimm brothers were recording and transforming.
“I was very interested in the great conflict between the belief in fantasy and the ideas of the Enlightenment, which actually became quite rigid in its own lack of belief in anything mysterious,” Gilliam explains. “And of course the conflict goes on today.”
But it’s not much of a conflict when the Enlightenment, represented by Pryce’s repulsive General Delatombe, wants nothing more than to burn the Grimms alive or otherwise dispatch them. (As his less homicidal comic sidekick, Cavaldi, Peter Stormare does manage to evoke a few smiles.)
For all of Gilliam’s lovely fantasy touches and some genuinely poetic special effects, Kruger insists on reducing the picture to an extended chase sequence, in which the general is forever trying to do away with the brothers. The result is Gilliam’s weakest film since his solo debut, “Jabberwocky” (1977), which was similarly obsessed with the sheer grottiness of European peasant life.
Before he made “The Brothers Grimm,” Gilliam was involved in a cursed, unfinished Don Quixote adaptation, the scraps of which were used to make the feature-length 2002 documentary, “Lost in La Mancha.” It’s more coherent and compelling than this completed film.