Grimm story: Dark tale not for kids

Fairy tales. We hear them once upon a time as children, and they live happily ever after in our minds. That's where the magic happens: in our minds. We first hear the stories read– probably badly– by our parents, or told around a campfire.

Storytelling is a minimalist art that inspires the imagination to run wild. In The Brothers Grimm, Terry Gilliam spoils the magic with a maximalist approach. (I coined the word "maximalist" for this occasion– send me a nickel every time you use it.)

Ehren Kruger's script throws in references to several fairy tales without regard (Perrault's Cinderella?) for whether they've been attributed to the Brothers Grimm. Characters like Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel are worked into the plot about the brothers getting involved in a real-life fairy tale.

These Grimms, Will (Matt Damon) and Jake (Heath Ledger), are con artists who travel around French-occupied Germany in the early 19th century. Each town seems to have its own proprietary demon– a witch, a troll, al-Qaeda or whatever– that keeps the populace in a constant state of fear.

When they arrive in a town, Will announces, "We're here to save your land from evil enchantment." For a price, of course. A sample of their work is impressive. They put on a good show, even if very few get to witness it, employing a couple of idiot stooges and the most "sophisticated technology" of the day.

They're caught by The Big Local French Guy in the Area (Jonathan Pryce) and sentenced to death– unless they can rid the town of Marbaden of what appears to be a real demon, one that has made 11 children disappear. So these tale-spinners (Jake's the one who's serious about preserving folk legends) find themselves having to put up or shut up. Permanently.

Though nearly as close as the brothers Damon played one of in Stuck on You, the Grimms don't get along too well. Will holds a grudge from the prologue in which young Jake bought magic beans with the money that was supposed to pay for medicine for their dying sister, and Jake resents that Will gets all the girls.

The stars would seem well cast, but if so, they're not well directed. Damon could be a good Will, but if he's hunting for a hit, his hopes are stillBourne, and there's been nothing but red ink in the Ledger since A Knight's Tale failed to achieve the success it deserved. The American and Australian actors compromise on sort-of English accents to play their German characters.

Overlong and overproduced, their fairy tale adventure involves a queen (Monica Bellucci) who, centuries ago, retreated into a castle in the forest to escape the plague that was going around. Down on the ground there's a self-sufficient woman, Angelika (Lena Headey), who acts as the brothers' guide to the forest and gives them someone else to fight over.

Thousands of bugs, hundreds of birds, dozens of horses, and a frog or two later, the loud, generally unpleasant story ends with everyone living happily ever after. Or not. As Will says, "Nothing makes sense there (in the forest). It's like being inside Jake's head." Or Terry Gilliam's.

Filming in the Czech Republic, Gilliam makes his film resemble a live-action version of a Jan Svankmajer animation. It's too dark, visually and thematically, for family viewing. There are a few good jokes, but they're mostly throwaways, and Gilliam's magic is as phony as that of the Grimms, just not as entertaining.