The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a fantastical morality tale, set in the present-day. Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) with his extraordinary travelling show "The Imaginarium" offers to members of the audience an irresistible opportunity to enter their universe of imaginations and wonders, by passing through a magical mirror. But Dr. Parnassus is cursed with a dark secret. An inveterate gambler, thousands of years ago he made a bet with the devil, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), in which he won immortality. Centuries later, on meeting his one true love, Dr. Parnassus made another deal with the devil, trading his immortality for youth, on condition that when his daughter (Lily Cole) reached her 16th birthday, she would become the property of Mr Nick. Now it is time to pay the price... In this captivating, explosive and wonderfully imaginative race against time, Dr. Parnassus must fight to save his daughter and undo the mistakes of his past once and for all!
For Monty Python fans Terry Gilliam’s striking cut-out animation links were more than free-form skits that threw the Flying Circus into high end moments of air-gulping hilarity; they were also somehow scary and enriching. They seem to burrow into the psyche, only to throw up disturbing vignettes of sex and violence"¦and yet the real theme seems to be one of liberation; we can all manage to wrench ourselves free from the muck and squalor of our existence simply by dipping into our imagination and letting our desires rule instead of suppressing them.
This idea was best expressed in what still seems to be Gilliam’s finest film, Brazil (1985). With its bizarre sets and inspired grotesquerie it was a striking re-think of 1984, where the timid protagonist 'escaped’ an Orwellian world of bureaucratic madness and oversized air-conditioning ducts into a fantasy of rescue and heroic deeds.
All of which is to say that The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus is a continuation of Gilliam’s style and obessions. There is the fluid and flexible animation-like sense of 'anything can happen’ in the way the plot and action is delivered; the same themes of escape, where fantasy is both a grace and a curse"¦and there are as is so often with Gilliam's direction, issues with performance, pacing and story.
Parnassus, will doubtless be remembered not as an interesting but frustrating Gilliam flight of fancy, but rather as the last picture of Heath Ledger. Perhaps fans will be disappointed but he’s hardly the best thing about it. It’s well known that Jude Law, Colin Farrell and Johnny Depp were recruited to fill the role left after Ledger’s untimely demise. As a filmmaker’s solution to a heartbreaking problem the strategy of using multiple actors in the same role works brilliantly; since the movie is about the desire to disappear and remake one’s image into a fantasy of perfection or courage or sexiness or"¦?
Like most Gilliam films the plot starts off great but gets lost in a catacomb of side stories (or should that be hall or mirrors?) Basically it involves an eccentric group of travelling players led by Christopher Plummer’s Dr Parnassus, who claims to be 1,000 years old. He has in tow, a 15 year old daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), an offsider Anton (Andrew Garfield) and a Little Person, Percy (Verne Troyer), who’s main job seems to be annoying everyone in sight. The group rescues Tony (Ledger) from what looks like a murder (or is it suicide?) Everyone takes a liking to the imaginative and versatile Tony, especially Valentina. When Tony discovers that Dr Parnassus’ travelling roadshow involves a magical mirror than can transport one into a parallel universe, his true nature is revealed.
There’s more plot – to do with the Devil (played by a very funny Tom Waits) and still more business with corruption and un-requited love"¦but what Gilliam is really interested in is creating fantastical images; here, the sky is open, the ground heaves, there are monsters and magic and all of it is beautiful. Trouble is, none of it is very interesting, mostly because Gilliam seems moved more by screen magic than human desire.
* * 1/2 stars