Short version: Despite its flaws, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus still offers some jaw-dropping visuals, fine performances and showcases a fantastically creative imagination that make it worth seeing.
Screen Rant's Ross Miller Reviews The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
There are a handful of directors out there - including Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch and The Coen brothers - whose new films are always considered to be cinematic events. Amongst that list of directors (for me) is Terry Gilliam, who I think is one of the most imaginative and creative filmmakers out there when it comes to the ideas and subsequent visuals that come the wild imagination he possesses.
Even when he's at his weakest, Gilliam always offers something worth watching in my books, whether it be ambitious sci-fi (Twelve Monkeys) or almost self-indulgent fantasy (Tideland). So does his latest fantasy-laden film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus deliver yet again on that Gilliam charm? Thankfully yes, even if the film is not exactly perfect.
Doctor Parnassus centers on the titular character (Christopher Plummer), a 1,000 year-old former monk who centuries ago made a deal with the devil (Tom Waits) to obtain immortality in return for any children he might father in his life, once said child turned 16. Dr. Parnassus makes a living from his traveling Imaginarium theater, which allows its audience to enter a magical and mysterious world which takes the form of the person's imagination, fueled by the power that Dr. Parnassus has.
One day Dr. Parnassus, along with his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), and his travelling theater workers Anton (Andrew Garfield) and Percy (Verne Troyer), come across the mysterious and amnesiac named Tony (Heath Ledger). With time running out on his satanic contract, Dr. Parnassus and his troupe venture out to save Parnassus's daughter before the devil comes to collect.
Doctor Parnassus suffers from what many of these types of real world/fantasy world films suffer from: The gorgeous, often awe-inspiring visuals to be found in the fantasy world make the real world pale in comparison. It's the scenes in the real world - which unfortunately make up the majority of the movie - that tend to sag in places, due to a thin story and how unevenly that story is handled. Perhaps the less-than-exciting scenes of the real world are watered down on purpose to make the fantasy aspects stand out even more - but as much as that's admirable in hindsight, it doesn't make watching the film any more entertaining. In my opinion, Gilliam proves that his imagination sometimes outreaches his ability to frame it within a package that works in its entirety.
It's a huge relief, then, that things pick up when it comes to the fantasy elements of this film - whether its the stories being told by Dr. Parnassus that are shown in flashback, or the actual fantasy world in all its visually stunning glory. From reflective lands filled with giant candy canes and golden lily pads (which kind of looks like a warped, no-boundaries Willy Wonka factory), to bright, cheerful, rolling hills with endless ladders pointed towards the sky - this film really is a visual treat that needs to be seen to be truly appreciated.
Whether right or wrong, much of the interest in seeing Doctor Parnassus will be to see the late Heath Ledger in his last film role before he sadly passed away. And if I'm being completely honest, it took me a while from when he was introduced in the film (which isn't straight away, FYI) to get used to it. And I would be lying if I said that Ledger's last performance was fantastic, or even his personal best, because it's not (as populist as it may be to say, his performance as The Joker was his peak). However, don't get me wrong: Ledger turns in a good, even great, performance, once again showing off his diversity as an actor and his true talent when placed in the right roles (he's been in some not-so-great films, too, let's not kid ourselves).
After Ledger died mid-way through Doctor Parnassus's production, it was questioned whether or not Gilliam was going to even continue on and finish shooting the film. As a fix, Gilliam brought on-board three of Ledger's friends, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. As great as it was (back when) to hear three great talents being added to the already impressive cast, I was dubious that four different actors (particularly such well known ones) playing a single character was going to work.
I can honestly say that the substitutions for Ledger did work, and in fact the changes seem so finely woven into the fabric of the film that it's hard to imagine it being any other way. Depp, Law and Farrell's appearances don't last that long (suprisingly, Farrell is probably on-screen the most, then Law and then Depp), but each put their distinct stamp on the proceedings while simultaneously fitting in very well with Ledger's performance. Like the fantasy visuals, it's hard to explain in words - you really do need to see it for yourself to truly "get it."
Alongside Ledger, we have some fine supporting performances from the likes of model-turned-actress, Lily Cole (sweet and innocent with a hint of mischief under the surface), Andrew Garfield (quick-witted and fun to watch), Verne Troyer (playing an often rude but nonetheless loveable character), Christopher Plummer as the titular Dr. (who's pretty much perfect for the role) and Tom Waits as The Devil (a genius piece of casting if ever there was one).
At almost two hours, I felt Doctor Parnassus was a little bit on the long side, with numerous scenes that could have been heavily trimmed or perhaps even removed completely. But even at its weakest, there's always something interesting to look at or a strange atmosphere to soak up.
Doctor Parnassus may not be what you'd call a perfect film, but there's enough visual wonder and conveyance (whether coherent or not) of Gilliam's unmatched imagination that I felt I got my time and money's worth. Gilliam fans will get more out of it than the average movie goer, but for those who love to be transported to fantastical worlds, the film is worth seeing.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus hits U.S. theaters on Christmas Day, 2009.