Brothers Grimm, The: Directed by Terry (Brazil) Gilliam, Starring Matt Damon and Heath Ledger

In his latest film, “The Brothers Grimm,” Terry Gilliam combines elements of comedy, fantasy, horror and romance in an adventure quest inspired by the Brothers Grimm’s fairytales.

Many of the Grimms’ renowned fairytales, including “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” and “Hansel & Gretel,” are woven into the story, but the film is so aggressively overproduced that ultimately it’s a turnoff.

Neither a biopicture of the storytellers nor a graphic depiction of their tales, “Brothers Grimm” aims to celebrate the spirit of the darkly humorous stories, known for their contrasts of magic and fear, wonder and vengeance, comic enchantment and blood-curdling evil.

Gilliam probes the very nature of what society considers scary and funny in storytelling, which is honorable. What’s not so honorable is his excessive visual imagination at the price of emotional involvement.

Though not as disastrous as “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” “Brothers Grimm” suffers from similar problems: Production design with no restraint or scrutiny. Whether Gilliam has become a victim of his own unbridled aesthetics is up to the viewers to decide, though there’s no doubt this film will sharply divide critics and audiences.

A picture filled with invention and larger-than-life images, “Brothers Grimm” concerns all the subjects that have preoccupied Gilliam before: magic and the supernatural, and the notion of storytelling. It’s the largest, most purely fantastical adventure he’s ever done, even more so than “Baron Munchausen,” which was an artistic and commercial flop.

As is known, the Brothers Grimm brought forth the yarns responsible for some of the world’s wildest dreams and darkest nightmares. They collected and spread tales of danger and mystery that continue to enchant today people of all ages. Though the film doesn’t follow the Grimms’ lives, it tries to convey the essence of their work.

Like the Grimms, Gilliam shows tireless belief in the notion that folk tales are vital means of exploring humanity’s most compelling fears and dreams. He creates an adventure that brings the siblings face-to-face with a cursed village in which the wildest fantasies have become reality. As the story goes along, the fairytales become real, and “reality” becomes entwined with fantasy until it’s impossible to distinguish between the two worlds.

Who’s the audience for this bizarre saga There’s the danger that viewers who have read and know the tales won’t like the film, and that viewers who don’t know the Grimms’ work may not absorb the movie due to the density of its text which is full of references to the fairytales and actual lives of the writers. “Brothers Grimm” is so overwrought, and in moments so over-the-top, that I doubt if many viewers will be eager to revisit the source material after watching this movie.

Gilliam has structured the saga around two dashing, diametrically opposed brothers, Will the cynical (Matt Damon) and Jacob the dreamer (Heath Ledger). They start out as frauds before becoming unwittingly heroes. As the story begins, Will and Jacob travel around the Napoleonic countryside vanquishing monsters and demons in exchange for quick money. When the French authorities figure out their scheme, the con men are forced to contend with a real magical curse. They enter an enchanted forest, where young maidens keep disappearing under mysterious circumstances. The brothers then are forced to confront what their imagination has brought to life in a battle between fantasy and reality.

Gilliam disregards the Grimms’ factual lives of the Grimms to create an escapade that’s nonetheless richly inspired by the stories. He creates a fairytale about the Grimms, who appear to be hip and heroic, traveling from village to village ridding them of trolls and witches. Meanwhile, Napoleon’s Army, which has invaded Germany, is trying to ensnare the brothers. Soon, heroes and villains are caught in a world that’s exactly like the Grimm tales.

Paying homage to the grandness and ghoulishness of the Grimm legacy, Gilliam playfully weaves throughout the film’s recognizable threads from their popular fairytales. Out of the hundred tales, Gilliam focuses on those that still resonate in our collective consciousness. For Gilliam, fairytales are a legit way for people exercise and exorcise their darkest anxieties. Fairytales are meant to be dangerous and disturbing, to stir things up.

The Grimms believed in the power of these tales. They lived in nineteenth Century Germany, a time when superstition and mythology battled with rationalism and modernism, a time of radical change in remote and primitive German countryside. The Napoleonic Army’s invasion brought with it the Age of Enlightenment, one that collided with a way of life based on ancient myths. Gilliam suggests that to some extent the conflict between fantasy and enlightenment still goes on today.

At the heart of the story are the bonds that tie the brothers together–and tear them apart. In the first part, Ehren Krueger’s script centers on Will and Jacob’s opposite personalities and philosophies. Hence, when they arrive in the cursed village of Marbaden, their mutual attraction for the same woman complicates an already complex relationship.

The brothers have an intense, love-hate relationship. If Will is the easygoing charmer, Jacob is caught up in this belief in storybook princesses, searching for the ultimate romance. Will is a hard-nosed, savvy con artist trying to make a living in hard times. Jacob remains a wide-eyed dreamer who believes in magic and fables. Both brothers have their beliefs tested, when they head into the cursed village of Marbaden. Their relationship continues to shift as they encounter the mystifying events there.

To get deeper into the essence of their fairy tales, the movie takes a lighthearted angle on who the Grimms were. Will is a smart and cynical trickster who’s unprepared for a world in which fairytale situations become real. Jacob is the twitchy storyteller who finds that the enchanted worlds he has always believed in really exists. The dynamics of their relationship is in constant flux, though their fraternal bond is never in doubt.

Surrounding Will and Jacob on their journey is an assortment of colorful characters, political buffoons, ravishing backwoods trappers, and wicked witches. Jonathan Pryce (a vet of Gilliam’s “Brazil” and “Baron Munchausen’s) plays General Delatombe, the French governor who imposes his rule on the German countryside, where the brothers have been plying their trade in demon hunting and exorcisms. Delatombe’s goal is to repress and suppress the people.

Delatombe’s unusual sidekick is Cavaldi (Peter Stormare), an ineptly heinous henchman who hails from Parma, Italy. Cavaldi himself soon becomes wrapped up in the Grimm’s tales despite his assignment to extract the truth from them with his monstrously malevolent yet decidedly ineffective machinery. Though he is the yarn’s dodgiest character, Cavaldi brings in playful black comedy. A demon that both torments and inspires the brothers, Cavaldi is a comic villain who eventually turns out to be heroic.

Problem is, Delatombe and Cavaldi are so buffoonish that they aren’t threatening, and they are too awful to be funny. Misdirected by Gilliam, both Pryce and Stormare are expansively theatrical and outrageously over the top.

The film offers two strong women: A stunning romantic beauty who cannot be resisted, and an eternally evil sorceress who must be defeated. The ravishing local tracker Angelika (Lena Headey) is a mysterious woman ahead of her time that refuses to play by the Grimm rules. As the village’s first educated and liberated woman, she’s caught between a world of practical reality and a world that’s undeniably cursed.

A savvy country girl, Angelika thinks that Will and Jacob are a pair of fools from the city who believe they can waltz in with their educated ways and clear the supernatural. She unwittingly drives a wedge between the brothers, when both fall for her. Angelika highlights something different in each of them, and, as a result, both begin to see something different in one another.

Then there’s Marbaden’s wicked witch (Monica Bellucci), the Mirror Queen, the 500 year-old ruler who will stop at nothing to attain eternal beauty. Tragically, fated to live forever, little by little she becomes old and decrepit.

For the film to approximate a fairy tale, Gilliam and his team have created everything from scratch, they built castles and barns, brought an entire forest of trees into a soundstage, trained ravens and horses. Along with production designer Guy Dyas (“X2: X-Men United”), Gilliam has developed a design aesthetic inspired by the shadowy whimsy of nineteenth century expressionism and the lavishly detailed, black-and-white illustrations of fairytale books.

Gilliam and his team have created on the big screen an aesthetic, visual and musical sense of dreams and nightmares. The special effects, some 750 shots, bring to life the ideas that couldn’t be accomplished practically, like making the trees walk, turning wolves into woodsmen, horses swallowing children, and best of all, aging the witch backwards from 500 to 25!

“Brothers Grimm” offers Gilliam the opportunity to delve into the darkest depths of his own imagination and bring to life a darkly humorous universe woven of menacing forests, looming castles, lurking wolves, and cryptic beasts with his trademark originality and flourish. Gilliam offers the viewers the chance to go beyond the normal boundaries of reality into that world they believed in as kids. However, as noted above, how the audience will react would depend on their familiarity with the Grimm tales.

However, his concept to create a raw nineteenth century reality and then warp it into a surreal world is only semi-successful. The transitions are often rough, and at least half of the set pieces are aggressively assaulting rather than appealing to our senses.

For the record:

Jacob Ludwig and Wilhelm Grimm were born in Hanau, Germany, before moving to Steinau, a small city that surrounded an old castle. Following in their father’s footsteps, the inseparable brothers studied law at the University of Marburg, where they began to collect ancient folk tales passed down orally from mothers to children. Showing fascination with language and folk history, and aiming to preserve a way of life that was under threat, they devoted themselves to writing and publishing tales. The Brothers Grimm were patriotic scholars who collected stories for the German people to be proud of their folk history; they wished to dispel the belief that it was primitive and barbaric.

In 1812, the Grimms published their first book of fairytales, “Children’s and Household Tales.” They went on to publish more than 200 tales, including “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Hansel & Gretel,” “The Frog King,” “Snow White,” “Rapunzel” and “Rumpelstiltskin.” Wilhelm died in 1859, and Jacob in 1863. Their final collection, “Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” has been translated into 160 languages. The tales, now an integral part of Western culture, have been transformed into every form of media, from opera to movies to rock music and fashion.