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'Grimm' stuffs magic, and everything else, into an erratic tale

Quick, what do you get when you mix Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Snow White, the Frog Prince, the Gingerbread Man, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, werewolves, the Napoleonic Wars, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, a 1,000-year-old Thuringian Queen, and a director with Monty Python in his DNA and a penchant for shambolic overbudget follies?

You get an absurd mess that's more entertaining than it has any right to be.

''The Brothers Grimm," Terry Gilliam's long-awaited return to the screen after a run of director's bad luck (see the 2002 documentary ''Lost in La Mancha" for the dire evidence), is hardly a triumph. It is a Terry Gilliam movie, though, and that's worth something. This sprawling comic fantasia on the life and adventures of the early-19th-century siblings -- who collected and put to paper many of the fairy tales we now take for granted -- is overplotted, overacted, and over-art-directed, with mossy sets and wonky digital effects crowding the frame.

But because this is a filmmaker who truly believes that a movie's not enough unless it's too much, there is genuine over-the-top magic here.

After a brief and darkly funny childhood introduction, we meet Jake (Heath Ledger) and Will (Matt Damon) as they're traveling through French-occupied Germany, scamming one village after another with a profitable ghost-busting act. Jake is the bespectacled scholar, mortified that they're trading on the old folk tales to make a quick thaler, while Will is the cynical rake who's always ready to play a game of ''who's the fairest of them all" with the local damsels.

There's a bit of Hope and Crosby to these two and remarkably little of Ledger and Damon. In fact, I spent the first half of the movie trying to figure out whether that really was Damon under the vague British accent and the muttonchops. This is either talent or embarrassment.

Captured by a French general (Jonathan Pryce, wallowing in caricature) and his Italian adjutant Cavaldi (Peter Stormare, even more so), the brothers are frog-marched to a distant village by the Forest of Marsbaden, where children have been disappearing at an alarming rate, where horses refuse to go, and where the trees have minds of their own. Despite the presence of a fetching local huntress named Angelika (Lena Headey), Will wants to bolt. Jake is convinced he has found the mother of all primary sources.

''The Brothers Grimm" never quite makes up its mind whether to play as the broadest of farces -- that's certainly what the director told Stormare, who quickly grows tiresome -- as an action-filled buddy movie, or as a tingly eldritch mystery of pagan beliefs taking back a little post-Enlightenment ground. When all the cylinders click, the effect is transporting, as when a glop of enchanted mud wipes a child's face right off her head and uses it to morph into a bratty gingerbread kid. When the pieces don't fit, the movie's just dank noise, a poor cousin to Gilliam's ''The Adventures of Baron Munchausen."

Without spoiling too much, I can reveal that ''Brothers" is lucky enough to actually have the fairest of them all -- that would be Monica Bellucci, as a wicked queen with eternal youth on her agenda -- and a climax that looks both cluttered and nicely pre-Raphaelite. But the movie never does enough with the idea that the old fairy tales might be all that's left of a powerful, pre-Christian world.

''The Brothers Grimm" has been sitting on Miramax's back shelf for the better part of a year and is getting a quick release before DVD oblivion and the fall appearance of Gilliam's ''Tideland," which from early reports is a much more ambitious work.

Consider this an appetizer, then, from a gifted, if bonkers, movie visionary. The fact that we're seeing it at all counts as a happy ending.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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