The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus Short Review (2009)


I’m a Terry Gilliam fan.

He’s an artist as well as filmmaker. Many, if not all, of his films are about storytelling & the power of imagination (and reality vs. insanity, but I digress).

There also is more theatricality in his films  than in typical Hollywood fare.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is an anachronistic traveling show with a magic mirror that reflects dreams back at the viewer. There are bits of Dali, Lewis Carroll, the Bible, the Arabian Knights, Greek mythology, the end of the 19th century art deco that Gilliam loves, among other things thrown together in a blender.

I think it’s easy to see from the pictures I’ve posted that visually, the film is all over the place. That’s not a problem for the film, since it covers several different eras. Plus, anytime someone steps through the mirror, they  get something completely different from the last person.

The heart of the film is the imagination. The plot revolves around the seemingly immortal Parnassus who tries to outwit the Devil, when ol’ Mr. Nick comes to collect on a past debt. that’s pretty much all you need to know. To explain what happens after that might be difficult and since I don’t like to give story details away. I’ll let you discover that on your own.

The set pieces and costumes are all very important in Gilliam’s films. The costumes even help tell the story. There is always so much onscreen that you can watch Gilliam’s films repeatedly and continue to spot things in the background that you might have before. As I said, he’s an artist; the kind after my own heart. Gilliam paints and draws in the margins, too.

I always like to point out cinematography  and lighting in films like this. It may be why I love movies better than television. You rarely get this kind of mood and atmospheric design work on the idiot box. There are an abundance of visual textures in a Gilliam film. Visually, this is some of Gilliam’s best work. Much credit must go to cinematographer Nicola Pecorini. He’s worked  with Gilliam before.

It’s like looking at a slideshow of vastly contrasting paintings. Some may find the story cluttered. I don’t.

The director doesn’t make films that follow the dictates of Screenwriting 101. I enjoy that. He sometimes lets the story go sprawling off on its own and then reigns it back in when it begins to pull the rest of the film off of a ledge.

The central actors are perfectly cast. I like Christopher Plummer in this one as much as I’ve liked anything else he’s been in. There are many incarnations of Dr. Parnassus. He doesn’t quite carry the film as John Neville did in The Adventures of Baron Munchaussen, but he is still the pivotal character and who and what the story is about.

Verne Troyer is great as maybe his conscience. It’s great that he actually gets a speaking role for a change. He’s the most serious character in the film, I think.


The lovely Lily Cole has the perfect look for the Old World style stage productions of Parnassus. She has the cherubic beauty of a silent film star. She does a fine job acting, too. She plays the daughter of Parnassus and the unwittingly what’s at stake in the  game between her father and the Devil.

Tom Waits brings a certain gruff yet whimsical style to the role of the Devil. The entire film has a light tone to it and his Mr. Nick has a vaudeville quality that fits in well. The poetic Mr. Waits is one of those people that seem like they just stepped out of an old black and white photograph. He’s made for roles like this.

The film very easily could have been about Anton played by Andrew Garfield. In most other director’s hands he would have been, vying for the hand of the lovely Valentina. Instead he’s just part of the whole. Gilliam toils in the realm of ideas.

Obviously, the death of Heath Ledger hangs over the film, especially since they had to use Depp, Farrell and Law to finish the film. The solution to Gilliam’s production problem is very effective, though. Had I not known of Ledger’s death, it would have worked, anyway. It is a shame, though.

Ledger was great here and it would have been nice to have seen his entire performance as the character. The fact that he did die, gives some of the scenes a gloomy resonance. It also gives the final sounds of the ringtones (Suffer the children) after the credits a hauntingly playful accent for some reason (to me, leastways).

Despite some meandering and the obvious problems that came with Ledger’s death, it’s still a great film, even if it rambles or threatens to unravel on the other side of the mirror.

4 of 5 whatevers.

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