Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm released the first volume of their collection of folktales “Kinder- und Hausmärchen” (Children’s and House Tales) in 1812. The first edition included 70 different stories, but after numerous editions the count eventually reached somewhere over 200 (different sources said different things in my research, but mostly between 209-211). If you are looking for the specific fairy tale references, check my Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale Guide.
If you have never read any of the original Grimm fairy tales they are an interesting read. I took a class in college called “Twice Told Tales” and we spent about half of a semester just studying the story of Little Red Riding Hood (Rotkäppchen in the Grimm’s first edition, but actually published first in the 17th century in French by Charles Perault as La Petit Chaperon Rouge). It was fascinating to see what details changed or were added over the centuries (Spoiler: in the original Red is an accidental cannibal and she dies in the end), and believe me when I tell you that any picture-book version you read as a kid was very watered down. I would only recommend reading the originals to children if you want them to have nightmares. You can access English translations of many early fairy tale compilations through the University of Pittsburgh here.
So, now on to the film. I am a big fan of Terry Gilliam (who wrote and directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail, among other things) and he definitely does not disappoint in this, his first PG13 movie. He actually rewrote much of the Brothers Grimm screenplay, but did not receive credit. If you like to be awed by visual effects and have your heart warmed by a good story, check out another Gilliam creation, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009). Like Van Helsing, Brothers Grimm was filmed in the Czech Republic, both on sound stages and on location.
The story opens with a young Wilhelm Grimm comforting his mother and ailing sister with the promise that his brother Jacob would return soon after selling the family cow. Jacob (who is erroneously portrayed in the film as the younger brother) brings back a handful of beans rather than the much needed cash.
Next, we see the brothers as adults. Wilhelm is played by Matt Damon and Jacob by the late, great Heath Ledger. (Fun fact, they were originally cast in opposite roles because Gilliam wanted Johnny Depp to play Jacob but thought Depp wouldn’t be a big enough box office draw. This was before Pirates of the Caribbean came out, remember.) The city of Karlstadt is in need heroes to fight a witch that is terrorizing their town and the Grimm brothers arrive to save the day. Too bad for the townsfolk that the witch is a hoax and the brothers are scam artists. Jacob has spent his life collecting folk tales, but Wilhelm is an avid skeptic and is only out to make a buck (or Deutschmark, or whatever).
Soon, the brothers are forcibly recruited by an Italian torturer named Cavaldi (a surprisingly funny character played by Peter Stormare) who is employed by the French. During the Napoleonic Wars, Germany was occupied by French forces, who are led by General Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce) in the movie. He tell the brothers of a town called Marbaden and the 10 children who have disappeared. The peasants believe that the children have been taken by a supernatural force living in the dark forest near their homes, but Delatombe believes it is another con artist like the Grimms. He sends them to expose the fake and help bring in an Age of Reason to the foolish bumpkins.
When they arrive in Marbaden (accompanied by Cavaldi and a cavalcade of French soldiers) they are told that in order to enter the foreboding forest they need a guide. The only person who can help them is “the cursed one,” Angelika (who is a super bad-ass huntswoman played by Lena Headey). They call her this because her father and sisters have all gone missing and let’s face it, probably because she wears pants and hunts with a bow, and this is the beginning of the 19th century after all.
Reluctantly, she takes the men deep into the woods which is populated by trees that can move and reveals to them a tall tower with no doors and but a single window at the top. To save the missing children (and their own skins from the French) they must defeat the immortal witch/evil queen (Monica Belluci) who lives there and hope for a happily ever after.
I totally love this movie. Steampunk fans that feel the genre is defined by technology will be disappointed because most of this movie takes place in small, rural villages, but the time period is on the early verge for the genre and fairy tales were certainly read to children in Victorian nurseries. The chemistry between the characters and their development is really compelling (you even end up rooting for the torturer in the end, which is no mean feat!) and the sets and costumes make you feel like you’ve been transported back to the early 1800’s. I don’t usually get nightmares from movies, but there is a scene with a horse that is terrifying, so think hard before watching it with kids under 10 (it is rated PG13 for a reason). The crooked houses and spooky forest set the stage for this fun and sometimes downright frightening film.
Check out some more pics from the film and concept art below, and feel free to leave a comment if you’ve seen this movie or read any really gruesome fairy tales.