It's a sad day when a Terry Gilliam film can be called a third-rate Tim Burton knockoff. Such is the fate of The Brothers Grimm, Gilliam's most recent attempt to play nice with a big Hollywood studio (Miramax in this case). The uncompromising director is notorious for battling with the producers who employ him, but usually manages to bring his idiosyncratic vision to even hired-gun projects. Something went wrong on this one, unfortunately. Totally, miserably wrong.
Blatantly patterned after the success of Burton's Sleepy Hollow, the film is a "reimagining" of those famous fairy tales collected by German scholars Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Decidedly not a historical bio-pic, in this version of the story Matt Damon and Heath Ledger star as Will and Jake Grimm, traveling con artists roaming the German countryside in 1811. Exploiting the fears and superstitions of the rural population by staging elaborate supernatural hoaxes, the brothers then ride into town to save the cowering villagers with their heroic ghostbusting skills, at a price of course. Caught in the act by a snooty French general (pointing out that Germany was once occupied by France is meant to be ironic), the boys are sentenced to travel to the village of Marbaden, where a similar scam is reportedly being perpetrated by parties unknown who have kidnapped several small girls. Only by debunking the scheme and rescuing the children can the Grimms avoid torture and death. They're happy to comply, until arriving and soon discovering that the threat is not man-made at all, but a real evil force possessing the local forest.
The plot's basic setup is essentially the same one that Peter Jackson used in The Frighteners. That movie didn't work either, and you'd think its failure might have clued someone in to take a different approach with this material, but screenwriter Ehren Kruger pushes forward anyway. About the only thing he does cleverly is to layer in recurring references to the real Grimm tales: Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Hansel & Gretel, etc. Most are pretty blatant, but a few fly by subtly (like the stack of mattresses from The Princess and the Pea seen briefly). For his part, Gilliam attempts to bring his skewed visual sensibilities to the production but little else. The film has the kind of remarkably elaborate production design that the director favors, and certainly looks of a piece with some of Monty Python's fractured fairy tale skits. Sadly, his usual wit and warped sense of irony are almost completely absent, and the end result suffers greatly for it.
The movie simply does not work on any level. The story is tedious, unfunny, and drags on way too long. The action scenes are confusingly shot and edited. While the sets, costumes, and props are all well done, the cut-rate CGI visual effects are terrible. Shots of the wolf transforming into a hunter and back again are embarrassingly poor, for just one of many examples. Damon and Ledger appear game to do whatever they can with the material, but aren't given anything to work with, aside from the fact that their German characters speak in English accents. Har har, what a laugh riot. That's the extent of the movie's idea of wit. Jonathan Pryce shames himself as an over-the-top sissified French stereotype. What Gilliam forgets is that when John Cleese played this type of role in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, he was making fun of the stereotype itself, not the actual French people. Even worse is Peter Stormare as Pryce's way, way, way over-the-top Italian lackey. Both actors strain very hard to accomplish something completely unworthy of their efforts. The gorgeous Monica Bellucci also shows up at the end as the evil Queen of the forest but is wasted with little to do.
The movie's production was famously troubled when Gilliam, no surprise at all, went to war with his studio employers over the direction the film should take. Considering that this happens on almost every movie he makes, it's amazing that he still gets any work at all. Supposedly, in this case he actually won out in the end and got his way. Sad as it is to say, the filmmaker claims that the theatrical cut is his Director's Cut, and that he got everything he wanted in the movie. That's really too bad, as it signals a considerable decline in his talents. The Brothers Grimm is a nearly unwatchable mess, and easily Terry Gilliam's worst film to date.
The HD DVD:
The Brothers Grimm debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Toshiba Entertainment in Japan. At the present time, Japanese HD DVDs are not region-coded and will function in an American HD DVD player. Unlike their American counterparts, Japanese HD DVDs are packaged in standard-size DVD keepcases.
In the U.S., The Brothers Grimm is distributed by Buena Vista, a studio currently only supporting the rival Blu-ray format. As such, the movie is unlikely to appear on HD DVD in this country anytime soon.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Brothers Grimm HD DVD is encoded on disc using MPEG4 AVC compression. The disc case only specifies "1080i Hi-Def", but an HD DVD insider assures me that the video content is stored in 1080p24 resolution, the same as all American HD DVD releases. The movie's theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio has been slightly opened up to fill a 16:9 frame with negligible impact to the composition.
This is a fairly good but flawed video transfer. The image is reasonably sharp and detailed for HD, but perhaps a little filtered. Colors are very well reproduced, especially the many amber hues used throughout the film. Many scenes are intentionally gray and bleak, and this is also accurately captured. I noticed no digital compression artifacts of note.
My one complaint is that black levels appear too light. This is meant to be a dark film, but it looks like the contrast range has been adjusted to bring up shadow details in an effort to make the disc look better on typical LCD or plasma TVs with poor black level reproduction. Unfortunately, on a screen with better contrast ratio the movie looks a bit washed out. You can compensate for this by pulling your display's brightness down, but only at the expense of dimming the rest of the picture. The disc certainly looks better than the last Japanese HD DVD I reviewed (Finding Neverland), but just isn't up to the same standard as the best American releases.
The Brothers Grimm HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format. The sound mix has active directional surrounds and a decent amount of bass in things like thunder and cannon blasts. Dialogue is suppressed too low in the mix, however, and if you boost your volume the rest of the track becomes obnoxiously loud and somewhat shrill.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – Japanese.
Alternate language tracks - Japanese DD+ 5.1.
This HD DVD was intended for the Japanese market. The disc menus are in a mix of Japanese and English text that may be slightly confusing for a non-Japanese speaker to navigate but not impossible. Since the movie defaults to displaying Japanese subtitles, the way to disable this is to select the last option in the right-hand column on the "Setup" page.
All of the bonus features on this HD DVD title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression. The interactive menus are accompanied by annoying horse galloping sound effects for every selection that can be turned off if you desire (and I recommend it). To do this, choose the very last option in the left-hand column of the Setup page.
Most of the supplements from the Region 1 DVD have carried over:
Missing from the Region 1 DVD are a visual effects featurette and some American trailers. Exclusive to the Japanese disc are:
- Audio Commentary - This track is found by choosing the 2.0 audio option in the Setup menu. Terry Gilliam is an old pro at delivering commentaries and knows how to fill the time without boring the listener, but sadly is much less animated than in his best tracks and is strictly on his best behavior here. Aside from briefly admitting that he didn't initially like the script, the director avoids any mention of the studio interference and production difficulties he faced while making the movie. He primarily focuses on the technical aspects of filmmaking (such as building the elaborate village and forest sets) and his stylistic choices. He also blithely ignores the movie's many faults and tries his hardest to make it sound better than it really is.
- Bringing the Fairy Tale to Life (16 min.) – Typical EPK fluff featuring the usual cast and crew interviews mixed with behind-the-scenes footage. Everyone interviewed strains to make the movie sound like it's not awful.
- Deleted Scenes - 12 scenes are provided with optional commentary from Gilliam. Each runs between 1-2 minutes long, with no Play All option. There are a few mildly interesting pieces of footage here, including one major visual effects sequence, but none that could have saved the movie.
No interactive features have been included.
- Japanese theatrical trailer - With Japanese narration and subtitles.
- Cast & Crew Bios - In Japanese text.
This Terry Gilliam fan is saddened to report that The Brothers Grimm is an unmitigated disaster and by far the director's worst film. Only the most die-hard of Gilliam completists could possibly want to own it. Anyone else should be satisfied with at most a rental of the DVD edition. Considering the high cost to import this Japanese HD DVD, just skip it.
The Bourne Supremacy (HD DVD)
Finding Neverland (Japanese HD DVD)
A Knight's Tale (Blu-ray)
Sleepy Hollow (HD DVD)
HD Review Index
Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD Player