On the surface, Terry Gilliam doesn't appear too different from the majority of other "maverick" film directors: An offbeat auteur with a cult following, often appreciated more in Europe than stateside, in frequent conflict with studio bosses scheming to alter his vision to gain more mass-appeal... that basic description covers VAST swaths of what could once be legitimately referred to as the world of "independent" film.
But here is the difference: For most indie "auteurs" with a vision to safeguard, said vision tends to be of small, character driven pieces which can be reasonably produced independently or at a cost low enough to fly below the bean-counters' radar. Not so for Gilliam, who's particular visions tend more often than not to be of the size, scope and means that ONLY the dreaded studio system could ever have the infrastructure needed to realize them.
He's the grand contradiction among all struggling film artists; the iconoclastic visionary who's aiming to work in the key genre of the mainsteam Hollywood blockbuster (large-scale fantasy/sf/adventure stories)... providing he's allowed to make them his way. And, because Gilliam's "way" tends to mean outright absurdism, wild shifts in tone and pointed social commentary woven into the fabric of the narrative, his relationship with the studio system is one of the most contentious (and well-documented) of all modern filmmakers.
"The Brothers Grimm" marks Gilliam's first completed film to reach theaters in several years, following the collapse of his disaster plagued "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote." The usual Terry Gilliam legends have come up around it (delays, budget cuts, studio interference) but with markedly less fervor than is typical. The message has been quite blunt: "This one" is here because Gilliam needed to make something and be paid for it for a change. The story has been, over and over, that he essentially worked as "director for hire" to film Ehren Krueger's script and that his "personal" project, "Tideland," will arrive later in the year.
Which is not to say that such talk is accurate, or that the resulting film is "bad." But it must be said that, unfortunately, those expecting the equal of "Brazil" or even "Baron Munchausen" will be a touch dissapointed: What we have here is a largely standard "quirky" Hollywood action/adventure piece in the vein of "The Mummy," garnished with Gilliam's signature style and penchant for the absurd. The effect is a pleasingly inventive late-summer entry that's never as good as it OUGHT to be but a lot better than it really NEEDS to be.
The story proper is a fictionalization of the early careers of the titular brothers, Willhelm (Matt Damon) and Jacob (Heath Ledger), here reimagined as con artists roaming French-occupied Germany in the age of Napolean. Jake is a self-taught expert in ancient folklore, Will is an able shyster, and they combine their talents in order to scam superstitious villagers by staging supernatural occurances and then exorcising them. When they're found out and arrested by a French general (Gilliam regular Johnathan Pryce, essentially reprising his "Munchausen" role,) he offers them a way out: Travel to a troubled village and unmask another gang of con men who (the French are convinced) have whipped the locals into a frenzy.
Guess where this is headed...
Yes, no sooner have the Grimms (along with Peter Stormare as a scene-stealing Italian torturer working on behalf of the French) set up shop in the village does it become immediately clear that there's real supernatural evil at work. Something powerful and ancient has been awakened in the forest, village children are being stolen, the trees have become untrustworthy and a Big Bad Wolf has been sighted. And what is going on in that crumbling old tower in the middle of the woods?
This all takes just a bit too long to set up, but once the base-plot has been established the story finds a good path to it's true purpose: As the Grimms investigate the mystery, various characters and situations they encounter begin to seem awful familiar... theres a little girl in a red hood, a kissed frog, a woodsman, a tower, magic mirrors and even two lost kids seeking a gingerbread house. As hooks go, it's a little thin but it works, and Gilliam milks the angle for everything it's worth. There's real cleverness on display in the way all the various tidbits and references fit together, even if some of it might seem more at home in a "Shrek" sequel.
Visually, the film has the same freewheeling pace and style that is expected of it's director, but the overall look and feel (not to mention the story itself) end up owing a lot to "Sleepy Hollow" and "Brotherhood of The Wolf" (both of which were better films, overall.) Strangely, the PG-13 film ALSO borrows a fair share of darkness from those R-rated predecessors: Despite being seemingly written with a family audience at least partly in mind, Gilliam finds plenty of room to indulge his celebrated morbid side. Severed heads and stabbings get big setpiece scenes, a random kitten gets tossed into a torture-device's whirring blades, extras are torn apart by angry living trees and there's a genuinely unsettling moment involving a horse, spider-webbing and an unlucky child that will give your children nightmares.
The film is getting a critical drubbing, not entirely undeserved given the scattershot way in which much of it occurs. It's a bit of a mess, yes, and it does carry the whiff of studio retooling at points. But it's definately not among the year's worst, and the parts that work really work. It's trying very, very hard to be something as special as Gilliam's prior genre efforts, and while it doesn't really make it it certainly entertains during the attempt. Overall, reccomended.
FINAL RATING: 7/10