California Literary Review

Before Witch Hunters…The Brothers Grimm in Film

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January 24th, 2013 at 9:30 pm

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The Actual Grimm Brothers

Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann’s painting of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm

With the release of Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters this week, I will be taking a look three films inspired by The Brothers Grimm. Renowned scholars of German literature and folklore during their time, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm put their homelands’ legends and tales into print during the early 19th century. While they were only two of several anthologists doing the same thing during this period, their “Children’s and Household Tales” has held onto worldwide fame for over two centuries. Originally published in 1812, it underwent numerous editions throughout their lifetimes and eventually ballooned to include more than 250 tales. Recently, “The Golden Compass” author Philip Pullman released his rendering of the tales in a collection entitled “Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm,” in honor of the first book’s 200th anniversary (read a review on this site here). While Pullman only covered 50 of the tales, other tomes, such as Jack Zipes’ “The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm,” includes over 275 selections from the duo.

The Brothers Grimm never really go away in movies or television either. Every few years we’ll see a reemergence of their collection as filmmakers try and (and usually fail) to bring modern cynicism and depth to relatively simple yet dark tales of witches, princesses, and love. In addition to this week’s Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, over the past few years we’ve had the ABC series Once Upon a Time and the movies Tangled, Snow White and The Huntsman, and Mirror Mirror (the best of the three), while Cinderella, The Frog Prince, and their contemporaries also come back in various forms. This article will look at some modern and not-so-modern films inspired by the pair, each with varying degrees of success.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (dir. Numerous people but let’s just say Walt Disney, 1937)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Lobby Cards

A Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs lobby card; film art used to be great

More than 75 years since its release Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is still a remarkable cinematic and technical achievement. Even with all the advancements made with computer animation, there is still something special about watching hand drawn cells- a warmth and humanity mostly absent in many modern day animated features where everything looks pristine. Characters in Snow White might move awkwardly and the sound seems “off” in a few spots, but there is something genuinely artistic about even the ways the clothes flow. Not to mention the remarkable detail that animators gave to the backgrounds and the overbearing forests with monster-faced trees and alligators camouflaged as logs.

Common for movies of the era, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs might seem a bit slow, even with its regular musical interludes. But an animated movie having the feel of a 1930s live action movie actually makes it a more impressive accomplishment. This was the first full-length animated feature film. It was an untested and unproven affair that succeeded in showing that animation does not need to mean cartoon-y. The Folly chapter of Neal Gabler’s “Walt Disney: The Triumph of American Imagination” provides an interesting and in-depth look of how unique, difficult, and novel the film and its making was.

One element that I find particularly curious is the dearth of people in it. We never see Snow White or Prince Charming’s kingdoms or subjects. I’m struggling to think if there are any non-animal “extras” in the entire film. While I understand that various restrictions probably played into this quality, it helps give the film a creepy sense of isolation that only adds to its fantastical quality. Nevertheless, it contains the most important figures from the Grimm story, including both the Huntsman (whom the Queen sends to kill Snow White, but who has a change of heart) and the Prince (whose creepy obsession with Snow White’s glass-coffined corpse brings the girl back to life).

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The trailer for Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Another interesting factor is how much of the “Disney Princess” formula shows up from the very start. Though it’s hard to think of moments in later Disney animated films nearly as sadistic as the Evil Queen laughing as she kicks the skeleton of a man who died trying to escape from her dungeon. (And I know The Lion King‘s Scar kicked skeletons, but those were of animals. Not people.)

Watching Snow White for the first time in many years has made me interested in going back to those early Disney films and seeing if I have a better appreciation for them and their sheer artistry. Though I continue to maintain that the Baby Mine scene from Dumbo is sadder than the Bambi’s mother dying scene from Bambi.

Red Riding Hood (dir. Catherine Hardwicke, 2011)

Red Riding Hood Poster

The poster for Red Riding Hood; more atmospheric than the entire film

© Warner Brothers

Not a good movie by any stretch, Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood is vastly superior to last year’s Snow White and The Huntsman. There are even some decent elements in Red Riding Hood – though how many of them are real and how many I imagined out of boredom is up for debate.

Latching onto hip topics like a starving pup suckling onto a teet, Red Riding Hood replaces the Big Bad Wolf with a werewolf, which means that the movie is about people in a small, pre-modern times village weeding out who among them bears the mark of the beast. After causing havoc during a full moon, the wolf takes a particular attraction to Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), our Red Riding Hood, whom the script saps of any personality and conscience, which seems to be common in leads of movies like this. Things become more complicated when soldiers sent by the Vatican and led by Solomon (Gary “You Can Do Better” Oldman) begin to investigate, since apparently the Catholic Church has monster warriors.

Even though we don’t know who the werewolf is until the end, the movie is set up in such a way where it’s not worth trying to figure out who it is. Clues point/don’t point to more than enough people where the ultimate villain seems chosen out of a hat. For those interested, it ends up being Valerie’s father, Cesaire (Billy Burke, Bella Swan’s father from The Twilight Saga and Revolution lead) who wants her to join him, and together they can rule the forest-galaxy as father and daughter! In an interesting note, after Cesaire dies, Valerie cuts his stomach open and fills it with rocks so his body can sink to the bottom of the water. In the Grimm version entitled “Little Red Cap,” the wolf is defeated by putting rocks in his stomach so he can drown. So the movie has that going for it.

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The trailer for Red Riding Hood

Certain things work or could work in Red Riding Hood. The village of Daggerhorn looks suitably like a realistic version of a fairy tale village- isolated, but pretty- even if the introduction of the church hurts this sense of solitude. Although the characters are cyphers, the majority of the cast is not that bad, and Seyfried doesn’t suck the life out of the project as other actresses might. However, the most interesting part of this story is the paranoia infecting the villagers. Done properly, Red Riding Hood could be like a decent Twilight Zone episode where nobody is above suspicion and distrust threatens to destroy everyone. Even Solomon, on his mission from God, could prey on people’s fears unintentionally and with noble causes making him less of an evil figure. In Red Riding Hood this element exists, but is sadly sidelined and not utilized to the best of its potential.

The biggest problem is that the movie becomes about an unrequited love story with two young adult males of the village competing for Valerie’s affections. These characters are so bland that I only remember who ended up with Valerie by going to Wikipedia. Thankfully, the film avoids having the partner the protagonist doesn’t want nobly sacrificing himself for her. (Instead, he joins the Church’s Monster Warrior Squad.) Unfortunately, Dad-Wolf bites the one she wants to remain with, and he will turn into the cursed creature himself. However, instead of killing him on the spot, she agrees to help him escape because he claims he can learn to control it.

These type of endings always bother me. Regardless of how successful the film is at presenting the love between two characters, the fact remains that Boyfriend-Wolf is probably going to kill several people, maybe even entire towns, as he goes on his journey of self-discovery. Movies such as this need to take a step back and look at the world beyond the goo-goo eyes of their main characters. Puppy love (no pun intended) is not an excuse for putting the lives of countless others at risk.

The film also concludes by condemning the townspeople for continuing to live in fear after the wolf is dead. But Valerie and Boyfriend-Wolf make a pact not to tell anyone that they found/killed the wolf out of fear for Valerie’s safety. The village dealt with an actual monster, they have no reason to believe that it won’t return, and they have practically no way to communicate with the outside world. Yes, they sentenced Valerie to death, but at the end, they all stood by her. Cut the Daggerhornians some slack.

The Brothers Grimm (dir. Terry Gilliam, 2005)

THE BROTHERS GRIMM, Heath Ledger, Matt Damon, 2005,

(c) Miramax

One of Terry Gilliam’s least successful films is probably also his most commercial. Unfortunately, The Brothers Grimm does not get better upon rewatching. Disappointed at my first viewing of it since I consider myself a Gilliam fan (Brazil being ridiculously high on my list of favorite movies of all time), I held off on watching it again until I had to prepare for this thread.

The Grimm brothers are Matt Damon and Heath Ledger as the renowned Will and Jacob Grimm- 19th century German con artists who speak in British accents and pretend to defeat the demons that plague the collective consciousness of small German villages. (Not their real history.) All the while, Jacob is writing these tales for eventual publication as the legendary “Children’s and Household Tales.” Eventually, they find themselves afoul of the occupying French army (led by Brazil‘s Jonathan Pryce) and are sent to rescue children from a real life witch, The Mirror Queen (Monica Bellucci).

The Brothers Grimm suffers from an overdose of conventionality. Will is the more levelheaded one and Jacob is the more scholarly one who loves the tales, but the film doesn’t even do that good a job at differentiating between the two. (According to Zipes, Jacob was “more introverted [and] serious” while Wilhelm was “outgoing [and] gregarious.”) However, although Damon is kind of bland, you can definitely see how Ledger would fit into the Gilliam universe, even in a lesser movie such as this one. Of course, I might be basing this reading on The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus-hindsight, but I would like to imagine that they’d have an ongoing relationship had the actor not died.

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The trailer for The Brothers Grimm

This is another of those films that loses its uniqueness when it enters the main plot. Going behind the curtain of the Grimms’ grifts is actually a lot more interesting and fun than when they have to contend with real immortal witches and magic spells. Also surprising is the lack of appreciation the film had towards its “source material.” The Brothers Grimm might have Easter eggs of some of the most beloved tales, but it lacks the love of the stories that a movie like this needed to work.

As expected with Gilliam, visually it’s very impressive. Poor CGI in several sequences aside, Gilliam understands the benefits of conventional effects. There’s a uniqueness to the look of the armor, equipment, and props that allow at least something in this film to stand out. Now sure, they don’t have badass leather outfits, 30 types of super guns, and crazy explosions like Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, but it also wasn’t blessed with a 3D conversion either. Well, at least Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters didn’t try to copy the look of Ralph Steadman’s iconic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas title.

The Titles for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and for Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

Oh. Oh…

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