The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Movie Information

The Story: Dr. Parnassus and his traveling imaginarium roam about London in quest of an audience and as part of a contest between Paranassus and the devil. The Lowdown: A wildly imaginative and fantastic film from Terry Gilliam that ranks up there with his best work.
Score:

Genre: Mystery/Fantasy/Allegory
Director: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield, Tom Waits, Verne Troyer
Rated: PG-13

Terry Gilliam’s much beleaguered The Imaginarium of Dr. Paranassus (you don’t get much more beleaguered than having your star die during production) is quite simply a wonderful film and a major achievement—assuming you’re on the film’s wavelength, and I very much am. I can, however, imagine quite a few people who will dislike the film intensely. For that matter, I won’t deny that the film has its flaws—none of which are related to its troubled production—but the flaws have their own brilliance and seem to me to be part and parcel of Gilliam’s vision. How sympathetic you are to that vision probably determines how you’ll feel about Dr. Parnassus.

I’m not uncritical of Gilliam’s work—he probably has more misses with me than hits—but I admire it and his adherence to making his films his way. Apart from Tim Burton, Gilliam may be the only complete fantasist we have working in film today. The difference with Gilliam is that his work tends to be less accessible. Gilliam’s films have the sense of being made with no thought of pleasing anyone other than himself. We’re permitted to come along on his fantasy journeys, but he’s not about to coax us. It’s as though Gilliam assumes that if a film interests and pleases him, there’s at least a chance it will do the same with an audience.

With Dr. Parnassus, Gilliam might be said to be at his Gilliam-est. At bottom it’s a good vs. evil story—something that describes most of Gilliam’s work. Its most obvious predecessors are Time Bandits (1981) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), but that might be somewhat misleading. If you replace the Supreme Being from Time Bandits with the fantastic fraud of Baron Munchausen you get something of the feel of Dr. Parnassus, but that’s not enough. Here Gilliam offers a good and evil story, complete with numerous allegorical hints, presented in terms of a game being played by the representatives of each—Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and Mr. Nick (Tom Waits). It’s part Satan tempting Jesus and part the story of Job—with its own spin on it all and no solid answers.

Dr. Paranassus is an alcohol-soaked wise man, who’s also a showman, touring with his rundown traveling “Imaginarium”—with the assistance of his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole); a hapless young man, Anton (Andrew Garfield, Lions for Lambs); and a surly dwarf, Percy (Verne Troyer). They play to small crowds of largely uninterested—and often abusive—patrons. Paranassus is frequently too drunk to do much of anything, but then there’s his mirror, which is the actual imaginarium that leads to the inner workings of his mind and the landscape of his ongoing battle with Mr. Nick. (It’s not a stretch to assume that the imaginarium is a peek into Gilliam’s own imagination.) Actually, describing it as a battle isn’t quite accurate. It’s more of a game or a contest—one not unlike the soul-collecting one between God and the devil in Stanley Donen’s Bedazzled (1967), but with what is ultimately an intriguing twist.

Into this mix comes Tony (Heath Ledger), a mysterious figure found having been hanged from a bridge and rescued by Anton, Valentina and Percy. Tony’s past is unclear (though he’s clearly hiding something) and his motives even more so. He’s both more and other than he seems, which happens to fit nicely with Gilliam having his imaginarium scenes played (out of necessity due to Ledger’s death) by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell—and played in ways that fit their screen images. (I’ve no doubt that the scenes were rewritten to achieve this end, but it’s still a bit of brilliance born of necessity.)

What happens is best left to be seen rather than described, but I have no reservations in saying it’s a journey into the mind of Gilliam that’s well worth making. However, since it is Gilliam, don’t expect a journey without its share of leaps, bumps and digressions. Those go with the territory, but if you like that territory, it doesn’t get much better—and it helps that all the performers seem miraculously in tune with Gilliam’s vision. As a farewell to Heath Ledger, the film probably couldn’t be better, even if the fact that it is a farewell marks it all with an undercurrent of sadness—made all the more so by the first of the movie’s closing credits, but that too is a touch that seems just right. Rated PG-13 for violent images, some sensuality, language and smoking.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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31 thoughts on “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

  1. Daniel Withrow

    I agree with you on Terry Gilliam’s bumpy track record. Some of his movies leave me completely flat, but Brazil is one of my three favorite movies of all time, in large part *because* it requires so much work to follow. Everything I’ve heard about Imaginarium makes me drool in anticipation.

  2. Dread P. Roberts

    I’m not uncritical of Gilliam’s work—he probably has more misses with me than hits—but I admire it and his adherence to making his films his way.

    That’s just it! Even when I really don’t like one of Gilliam’s movies, I love the fact that he is sticking to his own unique artistic sensibilities. There’s just something pleasant about being able to instantly know who the director is of the movie that you’re watching, simply by the artistic style in which it is filmed.

    I think that a lot of Gilliam fans were initially put off by The Brothers Grimm because, for some reason, they felt like he was ‘selling out’ (for lack of a better word). I never understood why this perception came about.

    I’ve no doubt that the scenes were rewritten to achieve this end, but it’s still a bit of brilliance born of necessity.

    I’m very interested to see how this all plays out, and to see if I can notice what might have been a rewrite.

  3. Ken Hanke

    I think that a lot of Gilliam fans were initially put off by The Brothers Grimm because, for some reason, they felt like he was ‘selling out’ (for lack of a better word). I never understood why this perception came about.

    I never did either. If you want to slap the sell-out tag on him for pandering to the marketplace, I think you could make a better case with The Fisher King.

  4. Dread P. Roberts

    If you want to slap the sell-out tag on him for pandering to the marketplace, I think you could make a better case with The Fisher King.

    I’d actually forgotten all about that movie. But, yeah, I suppose that would qualify if that was something that I wanted to do, but I don’t.

  5. Steven Adam Renkovish

    While most people were extremely critical of TIDELAND, I loved it. I loved DOCTOR PARNASSUS. Just saw it tonight. I will own the DVD.

  6. Ken Hanke

    I actually bought Tideland, but before I got around to watching it, it somehow disappeared — along with Alice’s Restaurant and Little Big Man. The latter two have since resurfaced. I keep hoping Tideland will.

  7. Daniel Withrow

    We saw it this afternoon. It felt a lot like Munchausen, but with an undercurrent of bitterness that grounded the movie. There are major plot questions I still have, but it’s definitely one I want to see again. Chewy Gilliam at his best!

  8. k.J.H. Childers

    Just finished one of my ‘now’ favorites from Mr. G.

    This surely top accomplishment out-bedazzles Brazil and conjures up some Fear and Loathing, and becomes ever
    fascinating as Jabberwocky! I feel like I’ve attempted a myriad
    of days reciting …

    “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
    All mimsy were the borogoves,
    And the mome raths outgrabe” ….

    Would we not all like to meet Mr. Nick?

    Well done, Mr. G

  9. Ken Hanke

    It felt a lot like Munchausen, but with an undercurrent of bitterness that grounded the movie.

    Interesting. What separates it for me is that there seems to be more “point” to this. With Munchausen I always end up feeling I’m watching an awful lot of effort that isn’t really going anywhere.

  10. Ken Hanke

    Would we not all like to meet Mr. Nick?

    Strangely enough, I would.

  11. Tonberry

    Just got back from it, bloody fantastic. Gilliam has made me a fan and I want to see his other films. My head is filled with happiness.

  12. I actually bought Tideland, but before I got around to watching it, it somehow disappeared—along with Alice’s Restaurant and Little Big Man. The latter two have since resurfaced. I keep hoping Tideland will.

    I hope it does, because I’d really like to hear your thoughts on it. It’s 100% Gilliam, and clearly made with little-to-no interest in catering to an audience.

  13. Daniel Withrow

    Heh–that’s interesting (the thought that Munchausen wasn’t really going anywhere). That might be a good description of the Gilliam that’s left me flat, and why Brazil is so wonderful. The bitterness is tied into that, I think. Munchausen was a zany confection of a story told by a gleefully madcap storyteller.

    Imaginarium was the expedition Munchausen sets out on after his last several expeditions have been major disappointments, nobody will finance his next expedition, and his main adventuring companion died halfway through the adventure. (I’d feel worse about this messy mix of metaphors if I were talking about someone besides Gilliam–here it feels like homage).

    Both stories are in their way autobiographical, but the bitterness and despair in Imaginarium makes it a much more interesting story.

  14. T_REX

    Brazil is my choice for “Best Film Ever” and since the death of Kubrick, Gilliam is the best director working. I sure hope he gets to redo his Don Quixote film.

  15. Dread P. Roberts

    I sure hope he gets to redo his Don Quixote film.

    I just recently re-watched Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate a few days ago; and there’s a brief scene in it where Johnny Depp looks over a collection of rare books, that I believe he refers to as a Don Quixote collection. I thought that was a little interesting, considering that Depp was once attached to the Don Quixote film production with Gilliam. Coincidence? I have no idea.

  16. Dread P. Roberts

    For those who might be interested, there’s actually a documentary called Lost in La Mancha (2002), about Terry Gilliam’s failed first attempt to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lost_in_La_Mancha

    Gilliam seems to have quite an interesting track record of struggling to make his movies. The poor guy must have some sort of a curse on him or something.

  17. k.J.H. Childers

    For those of you who suggest that BRAZIL is the “Best Film Ever” or at least Mr. G’s greatest accomplishment, I would second both notions! Yet, upon watching “Imaginarium” and subsequently considering Mr. Hanke’s review (which I deem as well said), I must, in all respects to you the reader, take a leap away from the “Neo-Orwellian” perspective that is Gilliam’s Brazil in order to find my own toad stool from which to excessively express my astonishment of this unique and wild fantastication! “Can you put a price on your dreams?”

  18. Saw it Sunday and really liked it, but my friends hated it. So goes another Gilliam film I guess…

    I was most surprised that Verne Troyer has got some chops.

    Gilliam has said recently that he will try to make Don Quixote again with Depp.

  19. Dread P. Roberts

    Gilliam has said recently that he will try to make Don Quixote again with Depp.

    I’m just hoping this doesn’t end up the way it did for Orson Welles.

  20. Ken Hanke

    Both stories are in their way autobiographical, but the bitterness and despair in Imaginarium makes it a much more interesting story

    Funny thing is that I almost remarked that if there was a point to Munchausen it was probable a personal thrust at people who’d told Gilliam he’d not get very far on “hot air and fantasy” or however the line goes exactly when Munchausen is dismissed by a detractor.

  21. Ken Hanke

    The poor guy must have some sort of a curse on him or something.

    I dunno. Most people never get to do as much as he’s done.

  22. Ken Hanke

    I was most surprised that Verne Troyer has got some chops

    And a pleasant surprise that was!

  23. Jessamyn

    I finally got to see this and was completely, entirely charmed by it.

    For me the crux of the film was when Dr. Parnassus declared delightedly to Nick that the reason the world had not, in fact, ceased to be was that someone, somewhere was telling a story. The whole film to me seemed to be a love letter to storytelling and storytellers.

    There was definitely an irony in the treatment that Dr. Parnassus and his beautiful, whimsical, archaic, beloved show received – very little different from the virtual rotten tomatoes thrown at the film by uncomprehending reviewers! I could practically hear Gilliam going “Thptptptpt!” at them in advance.

  24. Dread P. Roberts

    I dunno. Most people never get to do as much as he’s done.

    Yeah, I guess that’s true. Fine then, in no way do I feel bad for the lucky bastard. Happy now?

    I finally got to see this and was completely, entirely charmed by it.

    I was about to say the same thing, so I’ll just state that I agree. I’m very pleased to say that this was one of those rare occasions where I wanted to watch the movie again right after it had ended.

    This struck me as something of a Gilliam opus; his grandest vision to date.

  25. irelephant

    This film would be my number one film of the year – if i were to sit down and make such a list. loved every minute of it. If gilliam was cursed he must have had the damned thing removed, because he pulled this off remarkably despite the tragedy. He’s a bit like Quixote himself. And fascinating by implication how stories we are drawn to inform our lives and personalities…and who knows what else.

  26. Ken Hanke

    This film would be my number one film of the year – if i were to sit down and make such a list

    No one is stopping you…

  27. irelephant

    “No one is stopping you…”

    True enough, Mr. Hanke. I smell a challenge…

    1: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnanassus

    The shivers and nausea left over after Tideland have gone. Gilliam paid me abundantly for remaining faithful enough to sit through Tideland twice and even admire much of it despite my apprehension.

    2: The Fantastic Mr. Fox

    Such fun. Flat out love it. Wes Anderson hasn’t let me down yet. Can’t wait to see what he’ll tackle next.

    3: Sherlock Holmes

    Brilliant filmmaking. Great leads. And a take on the characters that totally worked for me. Again, love, absolutely.

    4: The Brothers Bloom

    Caught Brick on cable a year ago and was hooked. Wanted to watch it again immediately. The Brothers Bloom was different for me. I liked it well enough on first viewing, though didn’t love it, and had no desire to see it again. But thanks to Mr. Hanke’s enthusiasm for it I watched it once more to see if I’d missed something…that led to a third and a fourth viewing. Now I have this film in my collection and am unreserved in my admiration of it.

    5: Inglorious Basterds

    I was once a huge detractor of Tarantino. Pulp Fiction came on the scene in my freshman year of high school, and i fell in love with it. But everything Tarantino did afterward left me cold, and decreased Pulp Fiction in my estimation (oh! ficklness!) Inglorious Basterds caused me to rewatch everything he’s made, to reevaluate his entire nbody of work. I loved Basterds and found new respect for Taranatino.

    6: Whatever Works

    I’m a life long Woody Allen fan. I grew up watching his movies. I’ll sit through anything he makes. I even found things to like about Cassandra’s Dream. Whatever Works was nearly perfect to me. My only problem being that I would have rather seen Woody Allen in the lead, whether he’d written the part for himself or not. But you can’t get everything you want. And Whatever Works certainly works on every level despite.

    7: Up in the Air

    I’m certainly in tune with most critic’s top ten lists, but truly I loved this movie and I loved Clooney’s performence. Best Picture potential? Who knows? All that’s a bunch of entertaining folderal to me anyway. I wouldn’t mind if it won though.

    8:Easy Virtue

    Love. And Colin Firth as a miserable, cynical bastard was wonderful.

    9: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

    The first Harry Potter film I’ve really loved since Cuaron’s.

    10: Star Trek

    Oh yes, it is such fun trash. But for someone who down right loathes Star Trek to be converted is a neat trick. Though i may not wind up at any conventions, I’ll definately await the sequel with keen anticipation.

    There it is, Mr. Hanke. Not too different from your own. Though I must say I haven’t seen many of the key titles released last year. So this list is liable to change.

  28. Oh my lord, I finally saw this! What an invigorating piece of work!

    Probably the best performances Plummer, Waits and Troyer (almost certainly for Troyer) have ever given!

    I almost wish that Tom Waits would give up the music and stick entirely to acting after this – he goes on my list of ‘Actors who can do Relish properly’ list, along with Ian McKellen and Jack Nicholson. Every one of his lines made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

  29. Dread P. Roberts

    Oh my lord, I finally saw this! What an invigorating piece of work!

    I know, right? Big surprise, considering how ignored it was. This is going down on my list as one of the most underapreciated films of 2009 (of course, it didn’t play locally until 2010, but still). It certainly was one of my personal favorites for 2009, and the more I think about it, the more I want to say it’s one of Gilliams absolute best works (along with Brazil).

    And, yes, Tom Waits is awesome!

  30. T_REX

    Tom Waits Rules! No,he should not stop making music. My favorite musical artist, second to Peter Gabriel.

  31. DrSerizawa

    Even a poor Gilliam offering is a good experience IMHO. Just saw this, finally, and I couldn’t agree with Jeremy more. The casting of Lily Cole with her freakish beauty was inspired. I felt this film more in line with “Munchausen” as far as an epic playful spirit goes, something that Gilliam and few other filmmakers achieve. I hope that Gilliam has a lot more work left in him.

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