If J.K. Rowling had had her way, the first Harry Potter movie would've been directed by Terry Gilliam. Since she was thwarted by studios, the mad magic of this mash-up of various fairy tales is about as close to his Harry Potter as we're going to get. On disc Dec. 20, Grimm has practically nothing to do with the real Grimm brothers, linguistic scholars who collected and preserved scary, minatory German folklore stories. The main story imagines the Grimms as fraternal con artists: dreamy, romantic Jacob (Heath Ledger in John Lennon specs and a beard) and cynical, money-grubbing Wilhelm (a dull Matt Damon), who roam war-torn Germany circa 1812, casting out evil spirits who are actually their henchmen in disguise, using magic tricks that are just cheesy illusions. (Ledger, an actor on a roll this year, easily outperforms Damon.)
There are two main locations, a Monty Python's Holy Grail–scented village and the malevolent forest into which its virgins keep mysteriously disappearing. Gilliam makes both look terrific, and he stages outrageously beautiful scenes of enchanted violence: Tree roots drag kids into their trunks; one child loses his face to a monster made of mud. The story is a characteristically Gilliamesque mess, more an agglomeration of often inspired bits than any sort of whole, but by his scatterbrained standards it resolves itself into a kind of coherency, in its own sweet time.
Among the skimpy DVD extras, the half-assed commentary has a disconsolate-sounding Gilliam making indifferently flippant remarks. Is he still bitter at Miramax interference? I'll bet the movie would've had essentially the same flaws if Miramax gave him the same $80 million and no guff whatever. He marvels about how absolutely necessary to the story those expensive effects seemed while filming, and how dispensable they seemed once he got to editing: "It's all part of learning to make films." That's the glory and the tragedy of Gilliam: He'll never learn, and he's always learning.
LATE-YEAR releases are few with the holidays past. Look for The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, a Roger Corman collection including Caged Heat (directed by Jonathan Demme), the Jennifer Connelly J-horror remake Dark Water, Martin Lawrence in Rebound, The Great Raid, Valiant, a repackaged Toy Story 2, and season one of the HBO series Tracy Takes On (as in Tracey Ullman). Also out, the original 1977 George Segal–Jane Fonda Fun With Dick and Jane, the grand old Budd Boetticher Western Seven Men From Now, and Jessica Alba in Into the Blue.