“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is a fantasy film directed and co-written by Terry Gilliam. Separating itself from the majority of films in the fantasy genre, “Imaginarium” is set in a modern, albeit stranger, world.
Without preemptively illuminating anything plot-wise, the tale told is of Dr. Parnassus’ “Imaginarium,” which is a strange, carnival-like traveling show consisting of a dwarf (Verne Troyer, the Austin Powers movies), a young magician (Andrew Garfield, “The Love Guru”), Parnassus’ daughter (Lily Cole, “St. Trinian’s”), Tony (Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law) and the titular character himself (Christopher Plummer, “9″).
Led through a seemingly ordinary, yet apparently magical mirror on the stage, a chosen spectator can briefly enter into a new world. This new, outlandish place is controlled by their own wishes, with assistance from Dr. Parnassus and temptations from Mr. Nick (Tom Waits). Parnassus himself is a character of imperfections matched only by his longevity on earth, and is one to make a wager or two whenever the opportunity arises.
Oddities and intrigue abound from beginning to end in the plot, taking the audience on a visually great and mind-bendingly strange journey. At its roots, Imaginarium could perhaps be seen as a tale of choices and morality, admonishing about dishonesty and addiction. The film is a genuinely contemporary fable, rife with abnormal characters and atypical landscapes. Especially for a film with a budget of about $30 million, it lacks no depth and is extraordinarily compelling visually.
The land seen through the mirror is one of complete abnormality and eccentricities. Terry Gilliam, director of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, “Brazil” and “Twelve Monkeys”, has a knack for making films with a identifiably unique visual style, and “Imaginarium” continues that pattern. This is not a film which is so bizarre in its style and delivery that it fails to connect. The plot is every bit as interesting as it is irregular, with mostly strong performances throughout.
This film is also unique for being the true final performance of Ledger. Ledger, who died before the film was completed, shares the role of Tony with Depp, Farrell and Law. To think that four actors could adequately share the same role seems improbable, but it absolutely works in this movie.
Ledger delivers a great performance, further adding to his already substantial legacy. He is strange, he is whimsical and he is perfect in the role. Depp also delivers in a big way, transitioning into Tony in a somehow completely plausible way. Law and Farrell both give decent performances, although perhaps not as smoothly as Depp.
As for the rest of the cast, there are really not any noticeably weak performers, and even Verne Troyer manages to not be obnoxious. Tom Waits is fantastic, as usual, and may even give the best performance in the film.
“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is absolutely worth at least a couple viewings, if you can find it. Like many of the better movies in the last year, “Imaginarium” had a mostly limited release, making it somewhat difficult to find in smaller cities. If all else fails, definitely look for the film when it is released on DVD. A story of thick originality, Terry Gilliam really does succeed on producing a fresh, modern tale that is on par with the style and idiosyncrasy of fairytales of old.