The Brothers Grimm (2005)

The saddest aspect of this enterprise is that the visionary Terry Gilliam seems to be reduced to doing a poor imitation of the Tim Burton of Sleepy Hollow, even as he touches on themes that have run throughout his own work (especially the disastrous Adventures of Baron Munchausen). With a reversal of cliché that nevertheless panders to George W. Bush's foreign policy, the setting is an early 19th Century Germany where freedom-loving locals are bullied by an occupying French army commanded by a snippy gastronome (Jonathan Pryce, resuming his Munchausen role as the dull rationalist who insists 'story-book time is over'). The brothers Grimm, cynical Will (Matt Damon) and dreamy Jake (Heath Ledger), make a living like characters in several Hong Kong films of the 1980s as travelling ghostbusters, faking hauntings and then charging for their exorcism. Will is contemptuous of superstitious locals who are gulled by his scams while Jake is fascinated by the folklore he picks up on their travels. To cope with a rash of disappearing children in the village of Marbaden, the French bully the Grimms into investigating, assuming a rival trickster is at work, only for the Grimms to come up against a witch queen (Monica Bellucci) who lives in a woodland tower. Having gained immortality, she now needs to drain the life-force of the stolen children to add eternal youth to the package. The Grimms are partnered uneasily with an excitable Italian (Peter Stormare) and a feisty woodcutter (Lena Headey), and incidental sequences bring on a CGI gingerbread man and a werewolf.

Various plot turns or walk-on characters are supposed to be the seeds of the soon-to-be-famous stories (Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood) Jake scribbles down in his commonplace book. It's a workable idea, but Gilliam reverts to the bad habits of his sloppier films - as a talented cast flounder, shouting at each other while doing comedy bits which sabotage the magic without managing to be very amusing. Even the art direction and the feel for fantasy, staples of Gilliam's work, are here trite and derivative, plodding along in the wake of lesser directors who have essayed similar effects in The Brotherhood of the Wolf or even - in the worst monster stretches - Scooby-Doo and Van Helsing. The tone is fatally all over the forest.

First published in this form here.

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