Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

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The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

I'm starting to realize that I probably need to see The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus a second time. The problem with my first viewing was that my expectations were still set very high for Terry Gilliam movies. Yes, my expectations stayed high even after Brothers Grimm and Tideland, although Tideland was one of those odd movies that I thought was very good and yet didn't like.

Imaginarium is not at all bad, and it's certainly more fun to watch than the two previously mentioned Gilliam films, but it's not Brazil. It's not even 12 Monkeys or Time Bandits. Now that I know what I'm getting from this slight but lovely fantasy film, I think I'd enjoy it more if I saw it again.

The title character, Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), runs what looks like an anachronistic worn-down traveling sideshow, along with his friend Percy (Verne Troyer), his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), and young Anton (Andrew Garfield). And yet when passersby enter the Imaginarium, they fall into a world of wonder and horror and lots of CGI. Okay, okay.

Trouble starts brewing when the traveling troupe encounters a hanged man on a bridge, Tony (Heath Ledger), who appears to be a venal businessman suffering from amnesia. Tony is charming but disruptive. In addition, Parnassus's old enemy Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) has started lurking around the caravan and making noises about a mysterious wager. Valentina, who is about to come of age, has nearly had enough of all this, and finds the truth behind her father's situation difficult to believe.

The story is multi-layered and more complex than I've described it, with a heavy dose of mythology and allegory mixed into the contemporary setting. It doesn't quite work for me. The caravan seems too out-of-place in the modern world, and the CGI universe looks a little too fake and over-the-top at times (in my head, I am mixing it up with the CGI world in The Lovely Bones, which gave me the same difficulties). In addition, I could not watch the "transformations" of Heath Ledger's character without knowing exactly why they were in the film in the first place, which was distracting, even though the other actors (Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell) all provided excellent continuity for the character.

Without giving away the ending, it seemed very much Terry Gilliam-esque, but without a sense of the biting satire that often has accompanied similar sequences in his earlier films. It was more confusing than meaningful or entertaining. The plot may work well allegorically but not on a more basic level.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is gorgeous at times, with vivid performances all around, but the storyline seemed a little weak. Still, I would like to see the movie one more time in a theater. This may be one of Gilliam's lesser films, but that still makes it better than many films out there.