Fairy tales have taken a lot of abuse over the years. It seems that people just can’t deal with a good old fashioned gory folktale. As a child, my mother read to me from the original Brothers Grimm collection, which of course kept me up a good deal of the night, pondering a woman dancing to death in red-hot iron shoes (“Snow White”), and a wolf posing as a young girl’s grandmother only to devour her alive (“Little Red Riding Hood”). By the time Walt Disney got hold of the stories and interpreted them into his onscreen classics, everything was scrubbed with sugar and rolled in fairy dust.
In the Grimms’ “Cinderella”, there is no fairy godmother, only Cinderella’s dead mother whose grave she visits every day. Pigeons living in a hazel tree above the gravesite help Cinderella by producing beautiful ball gowns for her. They also pluck out her wicked stepsisters’ eyes at the end of the story as payback for being so nasty. When the stepsisters can’t fit their feet into the glass slipper offered by the prince, they are encouraged by their own mother to mutilate their feet. The two sisters take her advice and one girl saws off her big toe to make the shoe fit while the other cuts off her heel. It’s not hard to see why Disney decided to adapt his film version of the story from the kinder, gentler version authored by Charles Perrault.
While I can’t blame Uncle Walt for shying away from such strong imagery, especially for films aimed at a young audience, I do believe there’s something to be said for bold, menacing depictions of fantasy aimed directly at children. Because so many Disney movies are watered down, kids and their ever-present need for goose bumps no longer have much to turn to.
My mother, a former third grade teacher, used to bring home stories her students had written about Freddie Kruger clawing someone’s face off, and Jason Voorhees getting creative with his machete. It was clear that, among other things, these kids didn’t get anything remotely interesting and intelligent in the way of entertainment at home. It seems that nowadays kids don’t have much more variety unless you include thought-provoking video games like Doom and Mortal Kombat, and highbrow reality shows like Fear Factor.
While the Grimms’ tales often reflect the pitiless attitude and reality of 19th century central Europe, they were still considerably softer versions of the original tales. They were moralized and even given ‘happily ever after’ endings. Case in point: the 15th century Italian version of “Sleeping Beauty” portrayed a married prince who finds Sleeping Beauty (or the Briar Rose as she’s originally called in the Grimms’ version), has sex with her…and then leaves her to wake up giving birth to twins. Pretty scandalous stuff, and more true to life than the 20th century versions. By the time we get to the Disney era, Sleeping Beauty is awakened by an innocent kiss from a single prince who instantly falls head over heels for her. There’s reality for you.
And that’s one of the advantages of the original fairy tales. The often whimsical and magic-laden stories taught you a little something about the real world. I consider myself lucky to have been exposed to the old German tales. Not only did I get some clever storytelling and vibrant images to ponder, I also learned valuable lessons about life by the end of the stories. There’s some merit in giving children a little scare in order to teach them there are consequences for bad behavior (e.g., don’t try and hurt others or you’ll only end up hurting yourself).
It may sound cynical, but I didn’t grow up expecting to be swept away by some handsome stud on a white steed; I grew up expecting that people, including my parents, would die and that not everyone in the world is all that nice. By the time I saw the Disney films filled with fairies and magic pumpkins, I had already learned that life isn’t one big glittery ball of pixie dust.
Disney wasn’t the only filmmaker inspired to adapt the fairy tales. A whole slew of recent movies have come out based on the classic fairy tales including Ever After, The Princess Bride, Ella Enchanted and A Cinderella Story starring Hilary Duff. Needless to say, I was relieved to find out that Terry Gilliam would be directing the newly-released movie The Brothers Grimm.
Instead of adapting any of the brothers’ stories, Gilliam’s film centered on Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm while still young, wandering the countryside and incorporating bits and pieces of the tales they experience into their manuscript. As a premise, it is pretty interesting. But the result is equal parts gore and banality. I really wanted to like this film, since it centered on the two brothers who inspired so much of my childhood imagination. But having just returned from seeing it, I still can’t decide whether I liked it or not.
There is some lovely cinematography that focuses on an enchanted forest. The crows and the trees are lifelike and creepy, and the colors are deep and intense. A scene in which Little Red Riding hood traipses through the forest is deliciously sinister as is a scene involving a dark well, a vicious crow, and a little girl losing her face. These are the images that would have made the real brothers Grimm proud, but unfortunately the scenes are inserted between a lot of corniness and bad one-liners.
The references to the original tales are what work best in the film. Gilliam weaves his own fantasyland out of pieces of the Grimm’s stories, blurring together “Snow White”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Cinderella”, “Hansel and Gretel”, and “Rapunzel”. Among all the deep wood punch-ups and horseback histrionics, it’s nice to see creepy and familiar faces—the wicked queen in search of eternal beauty and youth, along with all the innocents she’ll kill for it.
While I appreciate it wasn’t some updated crock involving no-brain screenplays and cell phones, certain things in the movie seem severely out of place. Forgive me for being so picky, but take for instance Matt Damon and Heath Ledger’s English accents. Am I missing something here in thinking that the Grimm brothers were German? Also, I couldn’t get past Matt Damon’s brilliant white choppers. Among the rest of the cast, who have slightly yellowed teeth, Matt’s teeth look like bleached alabaster. Bless him and his dentist, but come on! His perfect smile could have at least been CGI-ed to look a little more authentic. This was 19th century rural Europe, after all.
On the whole, The Brothers Grimm doesn’t seem like a Terry Gilliam film at all, but some vague attempt to make a Hollywood action/fantasy movie with its punch lines set in all the right places. It’s sometimes funny, cute, bloody, action-packed, and sometimes dramatic. The only thing unswerving about the movie is its tendency to swerve all over the place. By the end, the movie feels as fractured as the wicked queen’s broken looking glass.
I do, however, appreciate that Gilliam attempted to recreate the darkness and imagination that the Grimms brothers’ tales evoke. Present day entertainment aimed at young people is either incredibly dull or super-bloody for no real reason other than to be shocking. If we had more knotted forests and a little less Grand Theft Auto and brainless interpretations of fairy tales starring Hilary Duff, I think kids would be better off. And that, they say, is the moral of the story.