As U.S.-based HD DVD fans of 'The Brothers Grimm' are probably already aware, the film's domestic home video rights are owned by Disney, which is Blu-ray exclusive studio. And while usually this would mean that you're out of luck if you hope to watch this title on HD DVD, in this case (if you're willing to spend a few extra bucks), there is a Japanese import option available.
Making things even more interesting from a high-def disc reviewer's perspective is the fact that Disney released a Blu-ray version of this film in the United States in October of 2006, providing a unique opportunity to compare a disc released on both next-gen disc formats across two territories.
So how do the two releases compare? Read on...
Surrealism in cinema is dangerous business. When it works, it can be beautiful, bold, thrilling and transcendent -- capable of reaching the kind of artistic heights a straightforward narrative could never hope to achieve. When it doesn't work, however, it can be pretentious, self-indulgent, and ingratiating. From masterworks like 'Brazil' and '12 Monkeys' to outright disasters like the recent 'Tideland,' perhaps no other commercial filmmaker has straddled this line more precipitously than Terry Gilliam.
Unfortunately, 'Brothers Grimm' just doesn't rank up there with the director's best. The story is certainly an intriguing take on the literary legends. Gilliam, working from a script by Ehren ('Scream 3,' 'The Ring') Krueger, re-imagines the brothers as mere crooks, less out to dazzle children with magical fairytales than to swindle their parents out of money by pretending to fight witches and monsters. But when a Scooby-Doo-like mystery suddenly befalls the village of Marbaden, the brothers have a chance to redeem themselves by preventing the sacrifice of twelve girls to the evil Mirror Queen (Monica Bellucci).
On paper, the 'Brothers Grimm' seems perfectly suited to Gilliam's sensibilities. And the film is often beautiful to behold, with wonderfully inventive sequences, fantastic visuals, and quirky humor. But something about the movie just feels inorganic, as if all the disparate parts end up clashing, instead of complimenting each other. Gilliam also seems to be caught in the trap of art versus commercialism. The story could obviously have been appealing to mainstream audiences, but Gilliam just is not a sentimental enough filmmaker to wring the required emotional pathos out of the Brothers' redemptive journey. It is easy to imagine where a Spielberg might have taken this material, but Gilliam seems more interested in his character's heads, and not their hearts.
Somewhat surprisingly, the performances don't help. As the Brothers, Heath Ledger and Matt Damon would appear to be inspired casting. But Ledger seems to be phoning it in, with his usual facial tics and garbled speech, while Damon just seems lost. The supporting players are stronger, particularly the always-dependable Jonathan Pryce as decadent Delatombe and the underrated Bellucci, but still everyone seems to be acting in different movies. It's like watching a table read where the actors are still feeling out their parts, and no one ever quite nails it.
Much has been made of the post-production squabbling between Gilliam and producers the Weinstein Brothers. It is no surprise that ol' Harvey and Bob are tough to work with -- they are legendary in Hollywood for their tempers and patronizing attitude toward even A-list filmmakers. But quite frankly, it is not the editing of the 'Brothers Grimm,' or an incoherent script, or a lack of budget, that is the problem. Even on the level of individual scenes, which Gilliam apparently had full control over, the tone never gels. The film just doesn't work -- either as a fantasy, an adventure, a comedy or a thriller. It's a mishmash of parts that, however wonderful to look at, together add up to very little.
Notably, unlike some other titles that have been released on high-def in two different territories, it appears that both the U.S. Blu-ray edition of the film and the Japanese HD DVD edition have been struck from the same master. In fact, aside from fluctuating bitrates, in a direct comparison of five major scenes from the film (including the opening, the climax, and three random sequences in-between), I had great trouble making any distinction between the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer on this HD DVD and the Disney Blu-ray version (which was also 1080p/AVC MPEG-4).
Simply put, on both formats (and in both countries) 'The Brothers Grimm' looks excellent. The film benefits greatly from Terry Gilliam's usual fanciful visual style, which is rich, lush, evocative and wonderfully surrealistic.
The source is pristine, with pure blacks and clean, smooth contrast across the entire grayscale. Whites can be incredibly hot on the high-end, yet hold back from blooming, which leaves the transfer very crisp yet pleasing. The film's color scheme tends towards brown, which gives it quite an earthy feel, but there are also nice splashes of very vivid, very saturated primaries, particularly reds and greens. Hues remain wonderfully pure, with no noise or bleeding. Depth is also very striking -- 'Brothers Grimm' looks three-dimensional throughout. Gilliam uses lots of smoke and effusive lighting, yet the sense of texture to the world he has created often looks exquisite and quite extraordinary. Only a bit of softness on blue screen shots (largely backgrounds) lessens the effect.
I imagine that if you went over both of these transfers with a fine tooth comb, comparing bitrates at any given moment, you would find discrepancies. But I was very hard-pressed to find any discernible or meaningful difference between the two, making this the rare import that easily stands tall with its domestic counterpart.
Alas, the Toshiba HD DVD version of 'Brothers Grimm' doesn't hold up as well in the audio department. The Disney Blu-ray enjoyed a terrific uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track (48 kHz/16-bit/4.6mbps), but the HD DVD import suffers by comparison with a lowly Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 track (at 1.5mbps). Certainly, it is far from terrible, and on its own terms it's arguably quite good. But with the film's sound design so aggressive and exciting, this one can't help but be out-shined by the Blu-ray's PCM track.
Surround use is quite active. There are plenty of nifty discrete effects that fill the rear speakers, and lots of near-seamless pans to buttress the fanciful on-screen action. The PCM track on the Blu-ray is clearly superior in delivering a heftier, more palpable presence in the rears, though again the Dolby Digital holds up well. Timbre is rich and warm, particularly the orchestral score by Dario Marianelli that is lushly rendered. Again, however, the high-end in particular sounds fuller in uncompressed form, and low bass also delivers more of a wallop -- just compare those early scenes with the galloping horses, and the distinction should be clear on a decent set of speakers. At least dialogue is comparable on each, with even Heath Ledger's mumbly dialogue always audible. Still, Disney's Blu-ray edition is the clear winner in this battle.
Like a tennis match, score this next round for the HD DVD import. While the U.S. Blu-ray included a couple of nice supplements, this Toshiba import goes the extra distance with even more bonus features.
First are two features identical to both the HD DVD and the Blu-ray. The screen-specific audio commentary with Terry Gilliam is actually quite low-key. I don't know if the director was simply beaten down by his now-legendary rows with the Weinstein Brothers or he was just having a no-Starbucks morning, but despite the lack of energy, there are some fascinating tidbits here. Steven Soderbergh was actually a consultant on the film, though I have to say I don't see his influence anywhere in 'Brothers Grimm.' PETA supporters will not like this track, as Gilliam is surprisingly candid about the number of abuses heaped on the animals during the shoot, including ravens tied to trees and a dead horse. Er, how nice.
Next is a clutch of 12 Deleted Scenes. Gilliam again provides optional commentary, but for me, none of these were particularly interesting, and were wisely cut. Though talk continues that Gilliam's film was destroyed by the studio, looking at this material, I have to wonder where all this supposed buried treasure is hidden.
Only on the HD DVD is an additional making-of featurette, the 16-minute "Bringing the Fairy Tale to Life." It's obviously one of those extended commercials meant to play on HBO or wherever. The on-set interviews are either plot recap, or gushing actors all praising Gilliam. However, there is a good deal of behind-the-scenes footage, so this one isn't a total waste of time. Video quality is only fair, presented in 4:3 full screen and 480i/MPEG-2 video only.
Rounding things out is a Theatrical Trailer (in 16:9 widescreen 480i/MPEG-2), which was inexplicably left off of the Blu-ray. The HD DVD also exclusively includes some basic text info on the Cast & Crew, but it's nothing you can't find on IMDB.
'Brothers Grimm' isn't Terry Gilliam's finest hour -- I like much of the director's work, but here the elements of comedy, fantasy and adventure just don't mesh very well. In terms of a face-off between this Toshiba Entertainment HD DVD import and the Disney domestic Blu-ray, it's a tough call. The transfers are equals, but the audio is clearly superior on the Blu-ray, while the HD DVD excels in terms of supplements. So if you're a dual-format supporter choosing between the two releases, you're just going to have to decide what is more important to you -- audio or extras.
Special thanks to Karl for loaning us this disc for review!
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.