You never really know what you’re going to get from a Terry Gilliam movie until after you’ve seen it. After all, I consider Twelve Monkeys a thoughtful, resonating science fiction classic, while The Brothers Grimm was unwatchable putridity. Gilliam has undeniable talent and an ambition much greater than that of most filmmakers, but that doesn’t mean Gilliam’s films – no matter how unique they may be – will convey an intriguing story.
Riding on the buzz of being Heath Ledger’s final film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is certainly a strange, original concept. However, for a movie that is supposed to enchant the audience and facilitate imagination, Imaginarium falls flat, though not for lack of trying.
Imaginarium takes place in contemporary London (at least, what I believed to be London), where the 1,000-year-old Dr. Parnassus, illusionist Anton, miniature Percy, and Valentina, the doctor’s daughter, travel around in a theater-on-wheels, offering audience members the opportunity to enter Dr. Parnassus’ magical mirror. As long as Dr. Parnassus is in a sort of meditative trance, whoever enters the mirror will find him or herself surrounded by manifestations of his or her own imagination. Naturally, most people believe Dr. Parnassus’ show to be nothing more than a hoax, and as a result Dr. Parnassus and company don’t have a lot of money to show for their efforts.
Seemingly by chance, Dr. Parnassus and his crew stumble upon Tony (Heath Ledger), who is left hanging to die underneath a bridge. Tony is rescued and upon awakening, cannot remember who he is or where he came from. Through some flashbacks, we learn that Dr. Parnassus attained immortality (as well as his own daughter) through a series of deals or bets with the Devil himself, who calls himself Mr. Nick. It turns out that Mr. Nick has a claim to own Valentina due to a prior wager, but being that he’s the Devil, he offers Dr. Parnassus one last chance to save his daughter – the first to collect five souls via Dr. Parnassus’ Imaginarium will be deemed the winner.
There’s a lot of backstory leading up to the events that take place in the present – including Dr. Parnassus’ time as a monk with the responsibility of telling a story continuously so as not to have the universe rip apart at the seams – but it’s a bit too much. In fact, most of the backstory is hardly relevant and serves only to disrupt the already staggered narrative. By the time we finally come to realize just what the conflict in Imaginarium is, it’s a total letdown in light of all the supposedly epic events that have happened in the past. Never mind the fact that the conflict comes in maybe 30 minutes too late; I found myself somewhat bitter that I had to sit through mostly meaningless exposition. To put it another way, while some movies take their time in setting up the central conflict, Imaginarium takes way too long.
It’s a shame that this was Ledger’s final film, because he really shines in this movie. In fact, the entire cast of Imaginarium brought something to the table, even Vern Troyer, who showed that he can handle a substantive role with actual lines of dialogue as opposed to playing the tiny clone of an evil scientist. But throughout the movie, I couldn’t help but ponder what could have been for Heath Ledger. His portrayal of Tony, a shady yet charismatic philanthropist with a talent for wooing women, was almost the complete opposite of his portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight, and it’s obvious how versatile and talented Ledger was.
Imaginarium hadn’t finished filming by the time of Ledger’s death, so Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell also play Tony, although their parts are limited to the surreal confines of Dr. Parnassus’ magic mirror. Although it may seem like a simple patch, Gilliam’s casting of different actors to fill in for Ledger – instead of using Benjamin Button-type technology – is actually a clever and appropriate technique given the many dreamlike sequences in the film. Tony’s different faces make sense and, just as importantly, aren’t much of a distraction from everything else that’s happening on screen.
Unfortunately, a star-studded cast and a brilliant performance by Ledger aren’t enough to redeem Imaginarium. The main purpose of this movie is undoubtedly to grab audiences and whisk them through bizarre, colorful worlds where imaginations manifest and run rampant. Sure, there are plenty of scenes “behind the mirror,” but all in all, they’re pretty underwhelming. There’s nothing particularly new about these sequences in Imaginarium, and the effects used border between crude and something you’d see from a fan-made movie trailer on YouTube. I’m not looking for Avatar-like effects, just some unique visuals that don’t seem half-baked. Quite a few times I thought to myself that Imaginarium would have been a lot better if it was directed by Michel Gondry, as his quirky visual effects would have played perfectly.
Still, it’s not just the effects – like I mentioned, the story takes so long to get moving that once it does, you are either disappointed or you simply don’t care anymore. We learn the truth about Tony and – like the imagination sequences – it’s just not that big of a deal. From a narrative standpoint, Imaginarium fails, but perhaps even worse, it fails from an escapist standpoint. By no means have I lost faith in Gilliam, but The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is ultimately quite forgettable.
2.5 out of 5 stars