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Culture Movies


The Brothers Grimm

Film has promise, but narrative gets gummed up with labored surrealism

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were super-scholars. In turn-of-the-19th-century Germany, they published 16 volumes giving the history of every word in the German language, the inspiration for the Oxford English Dictionary, which took hundreds of British scholars 70 years to complete.

But the Grimm brothers' greatest claim to fame is their collection of folk tales, which they gathered by interviewing peasants in the countryside, before that culture was obliterated by the Industrial Revolution. Since then, the stories of the Brothers Grimm-Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, Cinderella-have become treasures of world literature.

But in the movie The Brothers Grimm, these scholars are reduced to ghostbuster con-men turned action heroes. Once again, pop culture devours both the high culture of scholarship and the folk culture of fairy tales.

This movie, the brainchild of Monty Python veteran Terry Gilliam, has the brothers scamming superstitious peasants, pretending to remove curses and undo spells. Then they come across a genuine Enchanted Forest where children mysteriously disappear.

The concept has promise, but, as often happens in Mr. Gilliam's movies, the narrative gets gummed up with his labored surrealism. The movie uses isolated images from fairy tales-a red riding hood, a glass slipper, a magic mirror-but not the stories themselves. The result is a dream-like weirdness.

The villains are the French, in full-blown stereotypes, but their accents are so exaggerated that it is almost impossible to understand them. And in something not seen for a long time, the good guys are the Germans. The evil torturer suddenly transforms into a good guy, with no motivation or explanation.

The movie (rated PG-13 for violence, frightening sequences, and brief suggestive material) has some interesting visual imagery (including gratuitous bugs), but any one of the old wives the Grimm brothers interviewed was a better storyteller.