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The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
Genre Fantasy
Year: 2009

A traveling carnival sideshow "family" and their supernatural gateway to one's imagination is put in jeopardy after they rescue a wanted criminal and go head-to-head in a soul-grabbing game with the devil incarnate. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is an intriguing film alright: what Terry Gilliam film isn't... with Brazil, Twelve Monkeys, The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen, Time Bandits and Monty Python & The Holy Grail to his credit. However, a substantial part of the intrigue of Imaginarium has been aroused by Heath Ledger's untimely passing, a factor you just can't ignore in the follow-up performance to his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as The Joker in The Dark Knight.

Luckily, Gilliam was able to extract the bulk of Ledger's live-action performance before his death, which probably motivated the film-makers to push on. However, this left a large gap in the green screen Imaginarium scenes where Ledger's character features quite strongly. As something of a tribute to the late great actor, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell step in to complete the movie. As Tony enters the world of imagination, his facial features transform into each of the actors starting with Depp, then progressing to Law and later Farrell. The three "understudy" substitutes embrace the role, trying to energise their performances as Ledger would have played "Tony in Wonderland" and even donating their earnings to charity.

So what about The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus? Does it function as a stand-alone film? The basic answer is 'yes'. Gilliam has managed to salvage the magical mystery tour by blending the transformation performances into the film quite masterfully, although I can't help but wonder how it would've worked with Depp as the only Imaginarium Tony. The imaginarium experiences are as weird and wacky as Gilliam's wildly hilarious and downright creepy stop-start inserts for Monty Python. Gilliam's own imagination is translated in vivid, psychedelic imagery, which reflects the dreams and imagination of the occupant. It stays upbeat, funny and surreal without going down too many dark alleys into Lynchland territory... making it less scary than Coraline even.

The Imaginarium is fantastic and could be described as a glorious mess. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is all over the place much like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, starting in present day London and whisking itself into the deepest, darkest pockets of the mind. The bohemian Imaginarium crew consist of: the rock solid Christopher Plummer as Dr. Parnassus, the enchanting Lily Cole as Valentina, Boy A's Andrew Garfield as Anton, Verne "Mini-me" Troyer as Percy and a sinister Tom Waits as Mr. Nick. The ensemble are well-cast and their supporting performances enhance Gilliam's vision.

Although without a consistent lead in Heath Ledger, every character comes across as a supporting act forcing the audience to fall back on the script and visual effects. The script is imaginative, dark and well-written, but ultimately too ambitious... opting for elaborate "dreamscapes" in a 50/50 divide between reality and imagination. As a result, the surreal environments are budgeted down a notch... a factor, which must have become even more critical when the film suffered the loss of its principal star, Heath Ledger. The visuals serve their purpose and have a touch of Gilliam, but are second-rate in comparison with even some of Gilliam's older works.

The story does have a rewritten feel to it, making the whole fantasy adventure a little inconsistent and wayward. The sideshow's on-the-road travels give the illusion of narrative progression, but all that's really changing is their interpersonal relationships, their welfare and Tony's face. The imaginative escapades are purely fascinating like looking down a kaleidoscope. Without an engaging story and a sense of consistency it all crumbles around them in a powerful display of mild peril. Great performances, interesting characters and psychedelic visuals may hold your interest, but you won't leave The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus as satisfied as its patrons would suggest. Sadly, the end result makes The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus more like Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium for adults.

The bottom line: Fascinating.


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