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The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Theatrical Review

Heath Ledger
Christopher Plummer

Directed by:
Terry Gilliam

I'm a big fan of Terry Gilliam's work.  Gilliam is known for directing some films I consider to be classics, including Brazil, 12 Monkeys and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.  The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnasuss, while not perfect, fits nicely into his canon of films.  Certainly more so than The Brothers Grimm, which always felt a bit like someone impersonating Gilliam, and given the bad word of mouth, I've avoided Tideland thus far (although I'm sure I will see it at some point so I can make my own judgement).  It also marks a great finish to Heath Ledger's all too short career, with him having passed away part way through filming.

Parnassus revolves around a crew of performers attached to a travelling roadshow.  There's Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), Anton (Andrew Garfield), Parnassus's daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) and their driver - and moral compass - Percy (Verne Troyer).  Their show is performed using a run-down, horse-drawn, mobile stage that flips open to reveal a show based around a magical mirror.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is the type of film Terry Gilliam was born to direct.  Full of bizarre concepts and imagery, and taking place in great part within the imaginations of the customers of the Imaginarium.  As customers step through the magical mirror, they are enveloped by a world of their greatest dreams.  Then, as part of the "dream", they are forced to make a choice - the high road, where they become a better person and achieve true enlightenment, or the low road, where they are slave to their most base instincts (as the film implies most of us are on a day-to-day basis).

Through the course of the film we learn that Parnassus has achieved immortality through a deal with the devilish Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), but as a result, has had to make a supreme sacrifice.  Mr. Nick gets possession of Parnasuss' daughter on her 16th birthday, a mere three days away.

After a particularly bad show, our travelling band of gypsies meet up with Anthony (Heath Ledger), a mysterious man who's history is little known (even to him, initially), but who is the key to ensuring Parnassus does not lose his daughter to Mr. Nick.

Parnassus, as a film, is a classic simple tale told in an incredibly complex way.  The environments are massive in scope, and full of Gilliam's unique brand of imagination and humour.  There are moments that are simultaneously terrifying and hilarious while being incredibly symbolic in nature (as Anthony's world falls apart, his world literally begins to crumble around him) and at times Gilliam's Monty Python's roots shine through (a musical sequence involving a chorus line of British police).

This is not Avatar, however.  The environments are kept well outside the realm of any reality, and there's never any question as to whether the characters are in the real world or the Imaginarium.  The effects are at times cheesy, it feels like a film made 10 years ago,  but always serve the central story.

Gilliam has also done a brilliant job with the incredibly challenging task of replacing Heath Ledger in a film role he had only partially finished when he passed away.  Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell step in using a plot device that is explained early in the film and is consistent with the themes and conceits of the rest of the world of Dr. Parnassus.  This makes Ledger's disappearance at times less a distraction than a simple plot point that feels completely organic.

If your film tastes are drawn to less thoughtful films like Transformers, then you're probably best to spend your entertainment dollars elsewhere.  If you're a fan of Gilliam's particular off-beat view of the world, then you owe it to yourself to see The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.  It's not a film that's going to change the world, but it's good entertainment has some nice, resounding themes that suit Gilliam's style to a tee.  Gilliam's best film since Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.

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