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:
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.
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.
Subs & Dubs:
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.
Most of the supplements from the Region 1 DVD have carried over: