Former Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam’s first film in seven years couldn’t help but be much anticipated. Especially since the well-documented failure of his Don Quixote project, so painfully revealed in the superb documentary Lost in La Mancha, which brought back industry memories of his big-budget, underrated flop The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the idea that Gilliam could ever get a project funded – let alone finished – ever again was but a vague hope for his many fans.
The idea of a fantasy biopic of German fairytale maestros the brothers Grimm, played in deliciously over-the-top style by Matt Damon and Heath Ledger, where their stories are based on a reality which they reluctantly have to confront, sounds like perfect Gilliam material from the get-go.
His ongoing obsession with the blurring of fantasy and reality is one that has cropped up throughout his feature film making career, from Time Bandits through the truly outstanding masterpiece that is Brazil, the sprawling visual feast of Munchausen and the more character-focused The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys. The only idea that could have been any more perfect for Gilliam is an adaptation of the original tale of confused reality, Don Quixote itself. But that was not to be.
In the States, the film was greeted with a bizarrely mixed reaction. Some loved it, some found it very disappointing, others didn’t seem to understand it at all. All these responses are fair. It’s an utterly confusing film. Considering how long it’s been since Gilliam’s last outing, it’s easy to forget just how damn odd, and how improvised in feel his stuff can be.
This is utterly unlike the work of pretty much any Hollywood director. The closest to his style is probably Tim Burton, but Burton has always had a far glossier feel than the often rough and ready approach of a Gilliam movie. The fact that it has been such a long time since his last outing as a director makes it even worse, as many have forgotten just what his movies used to be like – and many teenagers, a group that used to be among his core audience, are now too young to have even heard of him.
To compound the problem, this is old-style Gilliam – the Gilliam of twisted live-action cartoons like Baron Munchausen and Time Bandits, not the more grown-up Gilliam of The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
It has been 17 years since he last completed a movie of this type, and in the meantime he has been consistently lauded by critics as some kind of genius. Which he is, but not in the way many imagine. His genius was always in the concepts – not necessarily in their execution.
Gilliam’s early work was always great fun, but generally had some parts that didn’t quite manage to work – yet they were always still well worth watching and had a tendency to grow with each subsequent viewing as more and more subtle ideas that he’d worked into the background came to the fore.
The same is true here. It may not immediately leap out as a classic, it may not leave you thinking it was great after one viewing, but the experience, as with any Gilliam film, is more than worth it, and you might just find that it starts to grow on you.