MOVIE REVIEW ★★ ½ Originality is Key to New Gilliam Film

‘Imaginarium’ Will Have Your Imagination Running Wild

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Heath Ledger’s fantastic last performance as the original Tony.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Directed by Terry Gilliam

Starring Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, Jude Law, Lily Cole

Rated PG-13

Now Playing

There’s been a fair amount of hype over the new Terry Gilliam film, “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.” Gilliam, a member of the classic Monty Python comedy troupe, is best known for his directorial pursuits of visionary plots and imaginative sequences. Early trailers promised such a classic Gilliam-style production, while Heath Ledger’s tragic passing generated significant buzz for the movie. And though the highly-anticipated film has its flaws, it presents a starkly original storyline coupled with some powerful performances.

The story, written by Gilliam and Charles McKeown, tells the tale of Doctor Parnassus (excellently portrayed by Christopher Plummer), a thousand-year-old man who has been given possession of a magic mirror by the Devil (Tom Waits) that lets the user step into an alternate reality of his own imagination. Parnassus now leads a travelling theater troupe consisting of a dwarf (Verne Troyer), love-struck teenager Anton (Andrew Garfield), and Parnassus’ daughter ­­— and the object of Anton’s affection — the beautiful Valentina (Lily Cole). Alas, many years before, Parnassus had struck a deal with the Devil that he would hand over any of his children by their sixteenth birthdays. As Valentina’s own sixteenth approaches, Parnassus has to figure out a way to save her soul. Meanwhile, the presence of a mysterious stranger in the troupe, Tony (Ledger, Depp, Law, Farrell), furthers Parnassus’s quest but creates problems of its own.

In order to appreciate “Imaginarium,” the viewer must be willing to abandon all preconceptions and step into Gilliam’s world. There will be times when you have no idea what’s going on or you are too creeped out by what’s on the screen in front of you to be able to relax and enjoy the film. There will be times when you must search for connections between plot threads, hoping they’re there and that you’re just too confused to see them. Any movie that places such heavy emphasis on the way it looks and its intensely imaginative storyline is going to encounter such frustrations.

But the difference between “Imaginarium” and, say, “Avatar,” is the stark originality of its story. The Devil, played wonderfully by Waits, is a hard-betting man who waltzes around in his bowler hat, intent on wreaking some havoc in poor Parnassus’s life. Even though the audience is never quite certain why Parnassus was given control over the mirror in the first place, the concept is a wondrous idea: a gateway into the imagination held by an immortal man whose woes all trace back to wagers with the Devil gone wrong. And Gilliam’s clever reaction to Ledger’s passing one-third of the way through filming was both respectful to a part that was intended for Ledger (Tony), and fitting with the story; all of his character’s scenes in the alternate reality are split amongst three different actors — Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell.

The juxtaposition between the fantastical and modern elements of the film has grown on me more than anything else from my initial reaction to the film. Unrestrained hyperbole is manifest in everything from the giant antique carriage that houses the travelers, to the scary extent to which people’s imaginations will take them, to the highly exaggerated character defects. Tony’s cunning greed, Anton’s love, and Parnassus’ hubris that leads him to wager so assuredly against the Devil himself are all straight out of a fairy tales, but this one takes place in the twenty-first century. Such contrast provides a satirical look at the nature of man’s desires and provides a ground for feeling strangely touched by the bizarre things that go on in “Imaginarium.”

If you are willing to do away with your inhibitions and enjoy Gilliam’s wild ride, then “Imaginarium” is worth the viewing. However, this is not a film made to everyone’s liking, so be forewarned.