Since 1981s Time Bandits, Terry Gilliam has established himself as one of the most iconoclastic and visually inventive directors in or out of Hollywood. From Brazil to 12 Monkeys to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his films explode with intelligence and a giddy sense of artistic mayhem. Even such cinematic misfires as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen boast moments of undeniable grace and wit. Gilliam often aims for targets no other filmmaker would even attempt.
Unfortunately, hes also a filmmaker of uncommonly bad luck. His productions are notorious for budget-breaking catastrophes and pie-in-the-sky ambitions, as captured in the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha. Its no surprise that his relationship with the studios is less than cozy.
In what must be an offering of the olive branch to Hollywood, the former Monty Python animators first film in seven years is the most obviously commercial work of his career. Influenced more by Scooby Doo than the traditional Brothers Grimm stories, the frantic, overly schematic script from Ehren Kruger (The Ring, Scream 3) misses many opportunities for greatness. The film reimagines the 18th century storytelling scholars as con men who travel around the countryside posing as supernatural exterminators. Jake (Heath Ledger) and Will (Matt Damon) Grimm bilk superstitious townsfolk by vanquishing marauding trolls and witches. Jake is the nebbish dreamer who believes in fantastic folktales while Will is a dogged pragmatist and flamboyant ham. With their divergent beliefs, the brothers bicker and feud in a classic display of sibling love and hate.
When a Napoleonic general (Gilliam stalwart Jonathan Pryce) captures the hucksters, he forces them to investigate strange reports from a remote village young maidens have gone missing in the nearby woods. Convinced theyre up against rival scam artists, the brothers recruit a local huntress (Lena Headey) and search for the missing girls inside a menacing forest, where they encounter an evil sorceress locked in an immense tower and mystical foes from their darkest imagination.
Alternately bombastic and whimsical, the film doesnt offer much in the way of subtlety. Even more frustrating is the narratives complete lack of subtext. Shockingly, Kruger has nothing to say about fairy tales, true love or even the brothers relationship. He doesnt so much explore the Grimm fairy tales as name-drop them.
Luckily, Gilliam recognizes these shortcomings and uses the film as a canvas for his unbridled aesthetics. With flourishes inspired by the lavish black-and-white illustrations of fairy tale books, he fills the ham-fisted story with breathtaking imagery. The sets and cinematography are layered with texture and atmosphere, and the costumes and props dazzle with otherworldly deformity. The film has a dark and surreal energy that evokes the nightmares of childhood.
Brothers Grimm is also Gilliams first foray into computer-generated effects that, while occasionally shoddy, still bear his strikingly original influence. Walking trees, an evil mud man, a sorceress (Monica Bellucci) who reverses age from 500 to 30, and a possessed horse that swallows children whole are all rendered with memorable panache.
The cast, for the most part, does an admirable job. Damon wrestles with his underdeveloped character (and his accent) but eventually finds the right comic tone for Wills hammy bravado. Ledgers amiably bookish portrayal of Jacob is both charming and heroic. Headey, playing the romantic lead, unfortunately is a beautiful bore, generating few sparks with her male co-stars.
With grotesque caricatures, sumptuous visuals and unrepentantly lowbrow gags, the film often threatens to careen into utter cartoonishness. Still, Gilliams enormous talents are on full display, proving once again that hes one of the most interesting and underrated filmmakers working today.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.