"I invite you tonight for one night only, here at this very venue, to enter into the mind,
the very great mind of Doctor Parnassus."
Heath Ledger died during the filming of this movie. Might as well get the elephant in the room out of the way right at the beginning. Yes, Heath Ledger was one of the main characters in the film and in all honesty one of if not THE most essential character to this story. When news came to director Terry Gilliam...
His initial thoughts was that the film would have to be scrapped due to the character's instrumental role and funding for the film largely came from Ledger's involvement with it. However, since the film involves entering a world of Imagination (the Imaginarium), the idea came about that once you are inside the Imaginarium your physical appearance can change. This allowed for new actors to be able to fill in for Ledger for the Imaginarium scenes which hadn't been filmed yet and let Gilliam continue to use Ledger's performances for his "real life" appearance. Actors Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell all stepped up wanting to assist with the project and were chosen not only for their great skill as actors but all of which were close friends of Ledger. Gilliam wanted to keep the acting "in the family" so to speak.
So how good can a movie that has The Joker, the villain from Up, Mini Me, Spiderman, the Psiren from Doctor Who, Jack Sparrow, Alexander the Great, and Dr. Watson? Well if that sentence right there didn't give you any hints then let's dive right into this film.
Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) runs a horse-pulled cart for his side show that invites people into an adventure of their imagination where inside the Imaginarium which is controlled by Parnassus' mind, their wildest dreams come true. Together with an assistant Anton (Andrew Garfield), a midget Percy (Vern Troyer), and his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) they run around the streets of London. In their free time, Parnassus tells wild stories about his life stating that he is thousands of years old and was at one time immortal after winning a bet with the devil who is also known as Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), however Parnassus fell in love with a girl and made a deal with Mr. Nick that he would trade in his immortality for youth but Nick would have the soul of any child he fathers at the age of sixteen. Valentina is only three days away from her sixteenth birthday and Parnassus is trying to find a way to keep his daughter.
He makes one more deal with Mr. Nick that within three days whoever can claim five souls first will keep Valentina. Parnassus drinks himself into despair when they come across the most unlikely person. A man hanging from a rope beneath a bridge. The man, Tony (Heath Ledger) has no memory of who he is or why he was there. Valentina takes a liking to Tony instantly much to Anton's annoyance. Tony begins to work the side show with them and proves his worth as his fast speech and flattery bring them more money than they had received for months. Eventually Tony decides to update the look of the Imaginarium cart to appeal to a higher class of people. During a trip to a high end mall, a woman mistakes percy for a child and starts to make a scene but Tony ushers her into the Imaginarium still not fully understanding what it is.
Tony finds himself changed (Johnny Depp) as he walks through the lady's imagination with her and helps shield her from the temptations of Mr. Nick. With Tony's help Parnassus receives four souls but Nick throws a curve ball into the mix as four Russian mafia members appear to attempt to kill Tony for things he had done in his life. They enter the Imaginarium where Tony finds himself changed again (Jude Law) but Nick claims the four Russians for his own. Now down to the final soul in the balance, Valentina and Tony both enter the Imaginarium, with Tony finding his third face (Colin Farrell) to be the final soul for Parnassus but as Tony slips into the dangerous truth of his horrible past, Valentina gives up her life to Nick so that the entire problem will be solved, but since she is the prize, Parnassus still has a chance and tricks Tony into allowing himself to be killed in the Imaginarum thus loosing Valentina from hell.
Parnassus roams around his mind until he eventually finds himself as a beggar on the street still looking for Valentina. He finally finds her having married Anton and a girl of her own. Percy finds him and the two team up to sell things on the street once more. Mr. Nick invites Parnassus to another bet but Parnassus ignores him having learned his lesson and happy for his child.
What's Good About It?
Heath Ledger is brilliant in this. It makes you wish even more that he hadn't passed away so we could have seen his acting inside the Imaginarium rather than just his performance in the real world. You can really see the genius that he had in both his role as the Joker and his more subtle role here. Tom Waits' performance as Mr. Nick (Satan) is also a good one. He's not over the top or even explicitly an overly cartoonish evil in this; he's just a sort of sleazy guy that you would expect to see hanging around a bar tempting people with things they really shouldn't be dealing with. It's easy to see him as Satan but at the same time you could easily dismiss him.
The Imgainarium itself is rather fun because it can be very colorful and happy one moment but then suddenly turn dark and gothic the next. It all depends on the individual's mind who is inside of the Imaginarium. It's really eye catching and you can't wait till the next person goes in to see what their mind will have in store for our viewing pleasure. Lastly the story behind Tony is a good one. How you grow to kind of like this guy who it ends up has done some massively horrible things and is lying about them. Any movie that makes you sympathize and even root for an ultimately awful person is doing something right and makes you think about perspective, remorse, and the deeds of others.
What's Bad About It?
I kind of hate to say this but... it's boring. If you read the storyline, I'm sure you're thinking that this would be a really wild ride of fun but a whole lot of it you are sitting there hoping that they actually do something. The visuals are great but in the end they aren't really doing anything. There's a lot of imagination but not a lot of action to back that imagination up.
For example, there is this whole story that Parnassus tells Valentina about his history and meeting Mr. Nick and why her soul is going to hell. It's something that should be epic but they do it in the most droll manner possible. Sure it adds atmosphere but in the end the same could have been accomplished with 3 simple sentances. And that's the way a lot of this goes...it's dragging out nothingness for longer than necessary.
That's really it's only major crime. Sure the ending is sort of bittersweet happy which I'm on the fence about in all honesty but I can forgive that because it is a darker themed film, but the boredom is another thing. A movie should excite me, I should be waiting for the next turn or twist, I should stay invested at all times but I found my mind wandering and me just literally being a vegetable sitting there watching it without emotion.
This is something I SHOULD love. It has so many elements that I normally find amazing in films; gothic theme, bright colors, lots of imagination, Johnny Depp, Heath Ledger, Vern Troyer, religious implications, the occult, etc. But sadly I just can't seem to love it. It's like the old saying that too much of a good thing isn't a good thing. Kind of like those romantic comedies that have 20 some very well known actors and actresses in it. You know with that many good people acting in it, that there is something else that is taking the backseat and will eventually ruin the film like the writing or the pace.
In the end it's a movie that I respect more than like just because it never got me that invested. It's definitely worth a watch just for it's oddity and the story behind the movie but I guarantee it's going to be few people's favorite. And if you're still on the fence as to whether or not you are intersted, take a look at this.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is available from Sony Pictures Classic and is rated PG-13.
This is Ghost fading into the darkness.
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