Matt Damon and Heath Ledger play Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, two brothers who spend their time traveling from one small town to the next small town, conning the local simple folk out of their hard earned money by performing staged magic tricks and pawning them off on them as the real deal. Their gig becomes far less profitable for them when an officer in Napoleon's army named Delatombe (Jonathon Price) exposes them for the fraud's that they are.
Taken into custody and obviously guilty of swindling the good people of late 1700s Germany, Delatombe decides that instead of torturing them or locking them up that he will send them to the remote village of Marbaden, deep in the heart of the forest. It seems that there has been a rash of mysterious disappearances there, primarily of children, and Delatombe wants the Brothers Grimm to use their cunning to uncover the mystery of the village and to set things right.
What the cynical brothers don't really gamble for is the fact that the woods surrounding Marbaden are truly and honestly inhabited by ghosts and spirits and things that go bump in the night. Angelika (Lena Headey), who has spent her years in the area and knows the woods well, tries to warn the brothers about the reality of the situation in hopes that they'll use the appropriate amount of caution but they don't pay her any mind in that regard and instead misinterpret her concern as affection and both become convinced that she is in love with them.
To complicate matters even more, the mystical Mirror Queen, a five hundred year old woman played by the lovely and talented Monica Bellucci, is casting a few spells over our intrepid misfits. They hope to storm her castle and put a stop to her ways, but the legend has it that if you kiss the Queen, she'll have your life and hey, who wouldn't want to plant one on Monica Bellucci? The boys are tempted, even if they know better, and it just gets more complicated from there…
The Brothers Grimm is, sadly, a bit of a mess. The story loses focus and the characters don't really evolve a whole lot, making a lot of the events seem rather pointless when it's all over and done with. There are moments scattered throughout the movie that really work but it almost seems like the story was hung around these moments rather than properly fleshed out. Jacob and Wilhelm aren't consistent in their actions as characters either and while Damon and Ledger are decent enough in the roles, they're only as good as the material that they have to work with and when they've bouncing around from goofy comedians to romantic heroic types it's hard to get a grasp on who they are and what they're really all about. The brothers' change their stand on things as the movie plays out, which would seem to be in contradiction with the fairy tale world that the movie was based on, where morals are often the only thing that remains stoic.
The other really, really big problem with The Brothers Grimm is the CGI, which is completely and utterly without soul and made all the more obviously fake when it is mixed in with live people who are having to pretend they're battling these great monsters. Compare the CGI scenes in this film to more organic sequences in some of Gilliam's earlier films like Jabberwocky, 12 Monkeys or even moments from The Fisher King and you'll see a huge difference. In those movies, the effects felt alive, despite some obvious flaws here and there. The creations in those movies had soul, they had life, they did not feel like something out of an Xbox game – sadly, here they do. They feel less like living, breathing monsters and more like video game characters, the most glaringly obvious example being the werewolf that the brothers encounter. With an eighty million dollar budget, you'd think that the filmmakers could have hired someone to handle the effects in a better manner and its' a shame that the CGI hurts the movie as much as it does in the long run.
That being said, not everything is that bad. The set design is quite clever and very inventive with a lot of nice detail present throughout. The small villages and some of the people who inhabit them have that Gilliam touch, that strange feeling of dirtiness and simplemindedness that makes a lot of the 'background people' in his movies so interesting. The sets are pretty involved, and they do go a good way to at least partially redeeming the visuals for the film. Likewise, the costumes are quite ornate and eye catching. Bellucci in particular looks quite striking, but that could be my own personal bias towards 'appreciating her' seeping in, though honestly her scene is the highlight of the film.
If we'd have gotten to know and understand the two leads in the film a little better and the CGI hadn't sucked all the life completely out of the special effects scenes, The Brothers Grimm could have been a contender. Sadly, that didn't happen and what we're left with is a film that feels very rushed and at times almost incomplete.
The Brothers Grimm comes to DVD in a nice 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that unfortunately exhibits some heavy edge enhancement and mild aliasing throughout the duration of the film. If you remove those rather obvious distractions from the transfer, however, things look really nice. The movie looks gritty and dirty as it should though there aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts or print damage. Color reproduction looks dead on – this looks like a Terry Gilliam movie – and flesh tones are lifelike and quite natural in appearance. This is not a perfect transfer, but it is at least a very good one.
The English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track is very strong. Dialogue is always clean and clear and the score comes through quite powerfully, but there's been some obvious care put into this mix as you can still pick out the smaller details such as ducks quacking and birds chirping in the background of certain scenes. Bass response is strong and lively and there's some nice depth to a couple of the more intense spots in the movie. Surround channels are used wisely, mainly for effects and music to build atmosphere rather than overpower you with a whirlwind of chatter and over the top bits and pieces.
An alternate French language dubbed track is supplied in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, and there are subtitles available in Spanish. Closed captioning is available in English for the feature only.
First up is a full length commentary with the director of the film, Terry Gilliam. Anyone expecting something as intense and as interesting as his discussion about Brazil will be sorely disappointed to learn that here, Gilliam plays it completely safe. None of the production difficulties or studio interference that plagued the movie is even really touched on at all and instead we get a discussion that primarily focuses on the fairy tales that inspired him to make the movie in the first place. Gilliam sounds tired and uninterested throughout large portions of this track, which is a real shame as in the past his tracks have been absolutely fantastic. That being said, this commentary is still worth listening to. Gilliam by nature is an interesting guy and enough of his personality comes through in this talk that it's worthwhile. He does do a nice job of covering some of the technical issues that the cast and crew had to deal with. Living up to the commentary he recorded for the Criterion releases of Brazil and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is a tough job, perhaps my expectations were just too high…
Moving right along, we come to the deleted scenes section, presented with optional commentary from Gilliam. Some of these scenes are interesting and it would be unfair to spoil them but do yourself a favor and listen to them with the commentary track on, as this time, Gilliam nails it. You wouldn't necessarily think that hearing why a scene was cut would be all that fun as more often than not it's for pacing reasons, but Gilliam does have some interesting explanations as to why this material was cut out of the movie.
Two featurettes round things up, the first of which is entitled Bringing The Fairytale To Life. As you'd expect, the main cast and crew members are interviewed here and we're treated to some behind the scenes and production footage. This piece isn't going to blow your mind or anything but if you want to get a feel for how things went down on set or how everyone enjoyed working with one another, this will fill that void in your life.
The second documentary, The Visual Magic Of The Brothers Grimm is a look at the CGI work conjured up for the movie. Unfortunately this feature doesn't differ much at all from other 'how CGI is done' style documentaries. We've seen plenty of them in the past and this one doesn't break any new ground or tell us anything we don't really already know. There are some nice moments were we see some of the preliminary effects in action, which is kind of interesting, but over all this documentary felt flat.
Also included are a pair of trailers for the feature and a few trailers for other, unrelated Buena Vista DVD releases.
Though the film has its moments to be sure, ultimately The Brothers Grimm really does feel like a seriously missed opportunity. It isn't humorous enough to appeal to kids and it's not quite dark enough to be the horror movie that it probably should have been. That being said, Ledger and Damon are likeable enough as the leads and much of the set design is quite interesting. Buena Vista has given the movie a respectable DVD debut and this release makes for a solid rental (though Gilliam completists will probably want to own it anyway).
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.