Movie Review – The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)


You either love him or hate him, he’s either a genius auteur or clinically insane. He has fantastic ups and grossly unsatisfactory downs. But say what you will about writer/director Terry Gilliam, his focused mind can mesmerize audiences.

Over a thousand years ago, Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) was a monk who one day met with The Devil (Tom Waits), also known as Mr. Nick; Mr. Nick placed a bet with Parnassus and Parnassus won. The stakes: immortality. Some thousand years later Parnassus falls in love and places another bet with Mr. Nick. The wager: Parnassus gains youth and love and if he is to have a daughter someday, then on her 16th birthday she will belong to Mr. Nick. In present time we see the Doctor traveling throughout a fogged-in London in a large, wooden caravan that opens into a stage that he, his soon-to-be 16 years of age daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), stagehand and assistant Anton (Andrew Garfield), and midget mechanic Percy (Verne Troyer) perform on.

When a passerby buys a ticket to the show they walk through a tall mirror fixed upon the stage. On the other side of the mirror is Doctor Parnassus’ mind and we witness as it melds with the customer’s psyche. What the customer’s personality and subconscious mind is like dictates what the infinite world within the mirror turns into. Eventually the customer must choose whether to follow the path of righteousness, dictated by the more colorful aspects of the world, or follow their deepest desires and be lost to Mr. Nick, soul-damned.

Enter Tony (Heath Ledger): a man found hanging from a noose underneath a bridge. He is rescued by Valentina, Anton and Percy but has no memories as to who he is or was or why he’d been hanged. Eventually, Mr. Nick claims to Parnassus that he’s just a bit of support in helping him attract customers. But The Doctor doesn’t like Tony or the fact that Mr. Nick may have arranged for their meeting. After a while Tony goes into the Imaginarium and when he does we see that his appearance changes into another person’s. One reason this happens is that Tony doesn’t know who he truly is, no more than anyone else in the film or the audience does. Each time Tony’s face changes inside the Imaginarium we discover a different aspect of him and a new direction in the overall story arc of who he really is. The second, behind-the-scenes reason is that, sadly Heath Ledger died halfway through the shooting of this film. Therefore, three times he is substituted by other actors; the first changeover is played by Johnny Depp, the second by Jude Law, and the third by Collin Farrell.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is an ode to the bizarre but with a touch of sentiment following closely behind. Many layers are formed throughout the story, like making deals with the Devil because you’d, ironically won a bet previously and must suffer immortality, and another is the nuisance of finding out one’s true identity. The people in Doctor Parnassus’ makeshift family love and fight and mistrust each other and jealousy, bad decisions and secrets are all a part of the giant game that Gilliam weaves within this wonderful film. We are watching what is actually an ongoing string of wagers between Doctor Parnassus and Mr. Nick, and eventually we hope for the Doctor to win. But Waits’ Mr. Nick is, somehow awesome and we’re not always loyal.

The outside world, the real world, is shown with realism. The London fog is real, the traveling crew’s vagrancy is appalling, and Mr. Nick is a nasty old man. But within the Imaginarium, everything purposefully is made to look fake. It’s not bad CG, it’s a deliberate making of a false reality. The green screen composites are very obvious and the textures of all the objects are lacking in, well texture. It showcases that inside the Imaginarium is a world created by subconscious stream of thought and therefore, nothing resembles the outside world and its reality. Once we return to the real world we are slapped back into reality instantly but are also immediately able to discern the differences between both worlds and appreciate both worlds for what they are and what they have to offer.

My favorite aspect of the film is perhaps the grimmest. Parnassus is a bum, plain and simple. He’s a drunk, his clothes are dirty and years old, his beard is long and yellowing, and he has a bad back. Having to live forever is one thing but having to be an old bum forever is simply cruel. His daughter and the crew look better than he does but they all share in the poverty. Only his old friend Percy is aware of his true identity and history. We see the mindset of an immortal man worn heavily upon Parnassus’ face and we know that he hates the contemporary world. He is aware of change but hates the direction that the world had taken. But that’s just one old man’s opinion.

Christopher Plummer is magical as Parnassus. Played with great worldly, convincing air and carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders he makes you feel for him for every possible reason. The dumb wager he’d made millennia ago, the fact that he’d been a tramp for centuries, and the fact that every time he’s about lose to Mr. Nick, the oh-so-kind Devil gives him another chance. And so on.

Now, Tom Waits is simply awesome. He wears a paper thin mustache, a bowler hat, and a nice Victorian-era suit. He IS the Devil and of course, he’s cool. He also supplies most of the comic relief (but sometimes Percy kicks it up a notch, too). He loves to beat Parnassus because he can’t wait for the next wager but he also likes to lose a bit because it affords him opportunities to cheat and have fun. He exists mostly in the real world, sometimes doubling as a pimp for underage girls (yes, Gilliam’s vision is not entirely kid friendly) and sometimes appears in the Imaginarium taking different forms such as a giant snake that had materialized from a dark black river, or the proprietor of a seedy motel that affords the opportunity for a quickie.

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Heath Ledger was talented, especially after The Dark Knight. Here he is used well. He’s tall and plays the theatrics card with authenticity, speaking with his entire body like he did as The Joker. He carries conviction in his tone and, through many facial performances he always reminds the audience that Tony may mean well but is hiding a secret. Even without his memory restored, he knows that there’s something wrong about his character and that takes a lot of talent to pull off.

To claim that Terry Gilliam is simply a talented filmmaker is a gross understatement. Brazil, although too much like 1984 for my taste and too dark, is a magnificent looking film, and The Adventures of the Baron Munchausen could not have been done without his brilliant vision. There are wonderments like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Time Bandits, and 12 Monkeys but then there are the missteps like Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, The Brothers Grimm, and Tideland. This film wonderfully treads on Fisher King territory and the main reason for its success, unlike James Cameron’s dazzling but hollow Avatar is imagination and heart. But mostly a true imagination.

This film leaves one with a happy note in their voice and a light step in their walk. I walked into it slightly skeptical and walked out wonderfully pleased. A good movie ought to make people feel like what they’d just witnessed, whether easy or difficult to watch was worth watching and this film is definitely worth watching. Maybe even more than once to pick up on all those little details that I guarantee had been missed.

3 1/2 stars


Possibly related posts: (Commentary Track generated)

The anime feature film Paprika is another delirious journey into the world(s) created by the subconscious, in that film courtesy of futuristic dream-capture technology. The lovely original fairy tale Penelope also unfolds in a real but not-real London.

7 responses to “Movie Review – The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

  1. Ooh. Good call on a suggestion for Paprika there at the bottom.
    That movie was awesome.

  2. This is truly a magical film. The many worlds inside the Imaginarium and the world outside are astonishing creations. I think I get what you mean about the “real world” of the film, that it has a tactile, real-world quality that’s deliberately lacking inside the Imaginarium, but it’s also a skewed reality. For me that was one of the most wonderful elements of the film – that it is complete and completely realized fantasy.

    The one thing I’d add to your review is how flat-out funny the movie can be. I really had a great time watching it. I hope it hangs on long enough that I can see it a second time in the theater, I’m sure you’re right and there was too much going on on-screen to catch it all in a single viewing!

    Re: Paprika, it seemed appropriate and I try to promote my favorites whenever I can. ;)

  3. interesting, i’ve read all sorts of wildly varying reviews for this one. i was one of those weirdos who thought ‘tideland’ was great, so who knows how i’ll react to this.

    by the by, big satoshi kon fanboy over here. i actually like ‘millennium actress’ and ‘perfect blue’ even more than ‘paprika’, though i seem to be in the minority on that. i particularly recommend the former to you guys if you haven’t seen it, it’s totally breathless and exhilarating and understands the appeal of moviegoing as well as anything. the latter is a much more chilling affair, i always think of it as an animated precursor to mulholland drive (or animated concoction of persona, hitchcock and sunset blvd. if you like).

  4. Actually, Perfect Blue has been considered a classic for about a decade now from real cinephiles so anime or not, it’s a great film. And while no other Satoshi Kon film is concidered a classic I do agree with everyone about Perfect Blue.
    I also like Tokyo Godfathers. It’s why animation can’t be “realistic”. 0_<

    But yeah, Christopher Plummer needs more recognition from the younger crowds.

  5. Haven’t had a chance to see Millennium Actress yet, but I like all of Kon’s other work. Perfect Blue is an amazing film. Tough to watch but very rewarding.

  6. Paranoia Agent is another great work of Satoshi Kon, it is a TV series, only 13 episodes. There was a Perfect Blue live action movie, but I have not seen it, but I do not think the reviews were that good. A little Trivia, Perfect Blue was referenced in the PlayStation game Bust a Groove 2 (Bust a Move 2)in Kitty-N’s ending to the game. Oops found out they removed the endings for the US release, So you have to check out the Japanese release for those.

  7. Some more trivia: Perfect Blue was originally slated to be a live-action film but due to budgetary concerns was eventually, entirely animated. More than a decade later people say, ironically that it’s so good a film that it would work as a live-action film.

    I hope that they hadn’t gone and ruined it now.


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