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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Bigger fans of Terry Gilliam than I may be able to find something in The Brothers Grimm to love, but all I could see in the two-hour extravaganza was a lot of Gilliamesque eye candy.

Gilliam’s style has always been fantastic. Sometimes the justification for fantasy is madness (Baron Munchausen), sometimes it’s drug-induced (Fear and Loathing), and sometimes it’s science fiction (12 Monkeys). This time, the justification is a haunted German forest.

The Truth is Out There

Jake and Will Grimm are 17th-century ghostbusters
Jake and Will Grimm are 17th-century ghostbusters

The title characters are Jake and Will Grimm (Heath Ledger and Matt Damon). They haven’t written their famous children’s stories yet, but they’re certainly gaining inspiration. The brothers are 17th-century ghostbusters. They ride to a haunted village, make an elaborate show of trapping and banishing evil spirits (witches, trolls, and magical enchantments), and then laugh all the way to the bank.

Like Scully and Mulder, one of the pair is a true believer (Jake), while the other has a much more scientific approach. Neither actually believes they are trapping real witches with their tricks, but Jake thinks the truth is out there.

The hook is that their next job appears to be real. Young girls have been disappearing in the forest outside a small town. Their guide, Angelika (Lena Headey), takes them into the haunted forest, where they discover that the trees can walk nearly as well as the werewolves. An impenetrable tower in the middle of the forest is said to hold some ancient noble, against whom the forest is taking revenge.

Spurring on the brothers is the French army, led by an Italian officer (Jonathan Pryce), who suspects the brothers are charlatans and is just waiting for them to slip up.

See What Sticks

Not surprisingly, Gilliam has created another fantastical universe. Maybe some of the computer-generated graphics (such as the mud/gingerbread man, or the demon-possessed horse) don’t always work, but the atmosphere is wonderful. The forest is close and claustrophobic, with gnarly, overgrown trees conveying menace and gloom. Black ravens are the only birds in their branches.

But atmosphere alone doesn’t make a movie. It’s not enough to save The Brothers Grimm from its chaotic, unfocused story. Too many disparate things happen all at once, and I could never quite follow all the fairy-tale logic. It seemed as though Gilliam was just throwing one idea after another on the screen without a master plan. First the brothers seem to drive the story, but then it turns out to be the forest. But then it’s the werewolf, or maybe it’s the ghost of the long-dead queen. It’s never clear who we should be watching carefully, and who is thrown in just for texture.

Granted, fairy tales don’t always have a rigid structure or a coherent story arc, but even so, a movie needs to fulfill certain expectations.

Black Forest Action Film?

Ehren Kruger’s (The Ring, Scream 3) script is too conventional for Gilliam’s fantastic world. The brothers too sophisticated for this world, as though they came from another movie. There are even action-hero one-liners that are entirely too modern for a fantastical fairy tale.

If that were the point of the movie maybe it would work: Action Movie from Black Forest. Then we might have had something more like Van Helsing. But The Brothers Grimm doesn’t have that sort of cohesion, and it ends up feeling like a mistake.

Another critic said The Brothers Grimm seemed too long by about 20 minutes, but I don’t know if mere duration is the problem. The problem seems to be its lack of focus. It’s a problem that not even Terry Gilliam’s wonderful style can compensate for.