It's fitting that dreamers like Orson Welles and Terry Gilliam both tried and failed to adapt Don Quixote, that archetypal tale of pointless striving, as both men are nearly as famous for the films they didn't make as the ones they did. Of course, there's a romantic allure to projects that never make it past the finish line. They exist for perpetuity as tantalizing possibilities loaded with promise, not cold slabs of completed celluloid to be judged and analyzed solely on their own merits. This has largely worked in Gilliam's favor, as cinephiles have been forced to imagine all the great movies he could have made—particularly his aborted stab at Don Quixote, which inspired the documentary Lost In La Mancha—in place of any actual directorial efforts from him since 1998's underrated Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.
Alas, the promise of a Terry Gilliam-directed take on the Brothers Grimm proves infinitely more appealing in theory than it does in practice, and The Brothers Grimm, Gilliam's first film in seven years, groans under the weight of high expectations, a lumbering plot, and the clattering hugeness of its massive setpieces. Working from a disappointingly workmanlike screenplay by Ehren Kruger, Gilliam casts Heath Ledger and Matt Damon as the titular storytellers, con men who sweep into tiny, superstitious European towns with tales of witches, monsters, and other beasties that only they are qualified to destroy. The Brothers' ruse works well until they're caught and brought before sneering French military officer Jonathan Pryce, who threatens to have them killed unless they ply their peculiar trade in a genuinely enchanted forest.
The premise is promising, but most of it goes maddeningly unrealized. There are ghoulishly indelible moments that illustrate what could have been, as when a sentient glob of sludge transforms into the most horrifying Gingerbread Man ever committed to film, yet they only underline the lack of imagination in much of the script. It's a sad day when a Terry Gilliam movie invites unfavorable comparisons to Shrek, but The Brothers Grimm toys with the conventions and characters of classic fairy tales in ways that never seem more than halfhearted. A healthy helping of morbid wit and Monty Python absurdity doesn't seem like too much to ask for in a fantastical story like this, but Kruger doesn't rise to the challenge, and major supporting players Peter Stormare and Pryce function as silly accents in search of characters. Gilliam has a revered reputation as a pie-eyed dreamer, but The Brothers Grimm reeks of compromise, of a brilliant fantasist losing his footing and nerve and getting hopelessly gummed up in the cruel machinery of big-budget blockbuster filmmaking.