As our movie starts, we’re introduced to a strange little traveling sideshow attraction as it’s making it’s way through and setting up for a show near a pub area in London. We’re introduced to Doctor Parnassus himself, his daughter Valentina, a young man who acts as the “barker” for the show, Anton and Parnassus’ aid, the dwarf Percy. And we’re introduced to The Imaginarium itself, which upon entry, seems to present it’s entrant a doorway into his own imagination and there the entrant has to make a choice of a certain path to take through life. We’re told of Parnassus’ origin, which involves him believing himself to be a leader of a group that keeps the order in balance for the world by telling it’s story, and then we’re introduced to Parnassus’ nemesis, the Devil, who has won a wager with Parnassus that takes him out of his former life and puts him into the existence that he has now. Along the way, the group comes across Tony, a young amnesiac man who was at death’s door until they come along to save him and again, Parnassus also becomes involved in another game with the Devil. Tony helps where he can, as little bit’s of his previous life become clearer to him, but those bits of his past look like they could be even more of a hindrance in the end than a help…
And that’s where I’ll leave off with the basic premise of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus both famous for being the newest movie from director Terry Gilliam and the last movie for the late Heath Ledger. I really, really wanted to like this movie, I’m a fan of Gilliam’s, though for me he really hasn’t delivered a really good movie since Twelve Monkeys, and unfortunately, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is another big miss in a string of misses, but one where it might also be impossible to think of it purely on it’s own on it’s first viewing, because of the obvious death of Heath Ledger and what was done to fill in for that. This might improve in later viewings, but I have to say for myself, those viewings would be much later than sooner, as still this didn’t grab me in the way that would make me want to see it again right away.
If Terry Gilliam isn’t the most cursed filmmaker out there, he’s certainly in the top five. After some very public problems with the making of some of his movies from the past (Brazil and the so far yet to be completed properly The Man Who Killed Don Quixote) he’s plagued yet again with the unfortunate death of one of his stars for this movie, and has come up with a way to finish it, by having other actors replace heath Ledger in some of the key scenes within the Imaginarium, at least on the surface… but there would have to have been other changes made as well (I’m thinking of an introductory scene where a young man goes into the Imaginarium and see’s his face has changed, which doesn’t happen for everybody that goes through), as well as what I though had to be some sort of tonal shifts that seem to undermine Tony’s involvement with the group. In addition, these changes seem to make it so that there aren’t really any rules for the use of the Imaginarium proper and while some could write that away as “Well, it’s a fantasy, anything can happen,” fantasy, at least o me is only really good when there are established rules that are stuck to. And in the end, what you get is something that, again to me, was patchy at best.
There’s nothing wrong with the main performances, Christopher Plummer plays Parnassus, and he’s certainly right for the part. Lily Cole is quite good (and attractive) as his daughter and I actually really like Verne Troyer here as Percy, and think there’s something both odd and quite cool about his interplay with an actor of Plummer’s stature. Tom Waits plays the Devil and of course brings those parts of himself that you’d expect him to for the role, making the character untraditionally creepier than what someone else might’ve done. Heath Ledger is also quite good in his last performance, though this isn’t anything near what he did in The Dark Knight it’s still quite solid, but it leaves the question of what would this film had been like had he lived through it’s completion. Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell all take the part of Tony as he enters the Imaginarium three times and I don’t think they’re seamless performances at all, and I’m sure there had to be some changes made that altered what the Tony character was originally supposed to be in order to finish this up, and unfortunately, those changes are felt.
There’s also nothing wrong with the visual style of the film, which is Gilliam running on all cylinders and certainly making the most of the technology in front of him to give you worlds within the Imaginarium that are like Gilliam animations from the Monty Python days, but this time working in three dimensions.
At present, like the movie Lost in la Mancha which is about all of the problems that Gilliam went through to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, it almost seems that the background of the making of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus might make for a more interesting piece than the actual film itself. As I said above, this might change for me with a later viewing, but after the first viewing, I’m not really that inclined to readily give this one another chance. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is an unfortunate mess, it means well and I’m sure Gilliam did the best with what he had in front of him (and probably more in desperation to just maintain his financing), but it left me more wondering in the end just what this could’ve been had he not made the changes that he obviously had to make.