Too scary for kids and too thin for anyone else, Terry Gilliam’s latest movie, like his heroes’ tricks, has a lot of visual flair, but no substance.
Gilliam’s version of the story about the folklorist Grimm brothers, Jacob (Heath Ledger) and Wilhelm (Matt Damon) has them as fakers and con men. They create illusions to terrify ignorant villagers so that they can get paid to rid the towns of witches and other supernatural creatures. But then when some little girls disappear into a forest that is reputed to be enchanted, Jacob and Wilhelm find that they have to rethink their ideas about fantasy, reality, and story-telling.
There are flickers of familiar characters to give us a tingle of recognition. A little girl in a red cloak with a hood goes into the forest and does not come home. Neither does another little girl who went into the forest with her brother. Hair is lowered out of a castle window. A queen wants to be the fairest of them all…forever.
And there are flickers of something more in the movie, too, some arresting and important ideas about magic and story-telling and fantasy and even politics and war. But they keep getting lost in dumbed-down slapstick. One un-funny joke has Wilhelm mistaking a village girl for a boy. This is considered so hilarious it is featured in the movie’s trailer and television commercials. But it has nothing to do with the movie’s plot or themes. Damon and Ledger seem to have no grasp of their characters and wander around the story like they are trying out for Ghostbusters: the Medieval Years. The usually reliable Peter Stormare (Fargo) is not just over the top — he is over whatever is over the top. And the usually reliable Jonathan Pryce, as a French officer overseeing Napoleon’s occupation of Germany, has almost nothing to do and does that badly. This is like a community theater production where they think that if they say everything fast and loud it will be entertaining.
At one point, a Grimm brother says to the other, “That armor is not magic; it’s just shiny.” That’s the problem with this movie. There may have been more there once — if so, I hope we get to see it on a director’s cut DVD — but for now, a few sparkles are not enough to make it watch-worthy.
Parents should know that the movie has intense peril and grotesque and grisly images. Characters are injured and killed. There is brief crude humor.
Families who see this movie should talk about the real brothers Grimm, who were pioneers in the field of folklore, traveling throughout Germany to collect German and French stories that are now familiar to children all over the world, including “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Rapunzel,” and “Red Riding Hood.” Families should talk about some of the stories from their own traditions and how they are — and are not — like the Grimm stories. Mature teens and adults might enjoy Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, about the psychological basis for these enduring stories.
Families who enjoy this film may also enjoy George Pal’s The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. And they will enjoy some of Gilliam’s other fantasies, especially Time Bandits, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and (for mature audiences only) Brazil (with Pryce) and Twelve Monkeys. And they might also enjoy the underrated The Village.