The Brothers Grimm gleefully sticks to this American storytelling tradition, even as it runs roughshod over the folklorist legacy of the Grimm Brothers themselves. In real life, the brothers studied law before collecting those famous fairy tales. They also worked on the Deutsches W & ouml;rterbuch, a dictionary that remains authoritative to this day.
But Terry Gilliam, who directed Brothers, has always been attracted to projects that bend reality to achieve fantasy. In the film, Matt Damon plays Wilhelm Grimm, a skeptic and con man. Heath Ledger plays his brother Jakob, a folklorist and scholar who once, we learn, traded the family cow for a handful of magic beans.
Jake, forever after pegged as a foolish dreamer, is guilt-tripped by Will into digging up odd pieces of regional lore, which Will then uses to scare superstitious townspeople out of their money. Eventually the brothers learn that there might be some truth to those tales after all, turning The Brothers Grimm into Van Helsing for book worms. That's not a bad thing. An examination of the way people forget the basic truth underlying their folktales is a fantastic premise for a movie.
Van Helsing, though, never stopped to consider those tales, their truth or falsity. It decided to make the creatures real and started killing them off. Gilliam approaches it like a storyteller, contemplating the elements of daily life that would eventually become the source of the Grimm brothers' beloved tales - not just the wraiths and immortal queens, but the cute little girl in the red cloak who lives in town or the creepy old lady soothsayer who's always handing out apples. Gilliam suggests that daily life, as much as age-old stories, contributed to the brothers' creations.
There is also a rich historical context. With the Holy Roman Empire splintered, the German identity was in jeopardy at the end of the 18th century -- a circumstance only made worse by French occupation. Gilliam delights in the Germans' uncertainty and disdain, toying with age-old prejudices and with that bizarre new French thing called "the Enlightenment."
It also leads to quite a bit of language-oriented humor, as when a French soldier, posing as a German, says "Merde ... I mean, schei & szlig;en." Like I said. Van Helsing for book worms.
Whatever the film's shortcomings, Gilliam understands that these tales, though allegorical, were once sacred and part of day-to-day reality. To honor that, the mystical and the mundane aren't set at odds, but mingled together to create a rich, zany cartoon Gothic. Watch closely to detect those familiar fairy tale elements. or just sit back and lose yourself in Gilliam's vast imagination; the movie works either way. Just stop worrying about what happened to the plot.