Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
Genre: Fantasy
Format: Blu-ray
Director: Terry Gilliam

Perhaps well-known for being Heath Ledger's final movie, Imaginarium is another perplexing entry by the forever eccentric, stubbornly determined Terry Gilliam. Harking back to the same kind of flair and wonderment found in Gilliam's earlier film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the movie is filled with promising ideas and crazy concepts. There are definitely moments of pure genius in Imaginarium but those are only matched with the same amount of some truly terrible, unrealized sections as well.

In Imaginarium, you follow the so-called "Dr. Parnassus" and his small theater troupe as they roam the modern city streets in their remarkably adaptable "stagecoach", looking to entice people to allow him to show them a magical world of their own imagination. This is accomplished by going through a fake mirror that becomes a gateway into a sort of one's own personal universe: Yes, you've guessed it - It's a self-referential metaphor. All is not what it seems however because our good Dr. has a very close relationship with the devil himself so one trip into the intoxicating world may lead to eternal damnation. The mechanics of this whole setup is not fully explained but it's that ambiguity and mystery that makes it all the more tempting and infinitely more interesting. A part of Parnassus' "partnership" with the devil also involves him losing his daughter when she comes of age and his attempt to save her becomes the main adventure of the film. There is definitely a very dark morality system to the story and it's best exhibited by the rather cruel but justified climax of the film.

It's strange that a movie that thrives on the idea of free-flowing creativity of the mind spends most of its time being dull and unimaginative. When you see the actual "Imaginarium", you will be in awe with or without some of the bad CGs, but you will wish that you get to see more of it. There are so many things that could be done to make the actual fantasy scenes the main focus of the film. Maybe the movie could have benefited a medieval or even a futuristic setting framing its entire narrative because when Gilliam's own imagination wanders, like during the flashback of Parnassus' first encounter with the devil, the screen is just filled with utter fantastical brilliance. Following the theater troupe leading a boring hobo existence is not. Then there is the whole recast for Ledger's character. Though it works in terms of the storyline - Gilliam insisted that the original story remains intact after Ledger's departure - it feels a bit too tacked on. Because of how strongly the film ended though, I have a strong suspicion that the recast was way overdone where Gilliam actually used new footage with the new actors to replace existing footage of Ledger that was already done and that he was just trying to be "sensitive" about the situation.

Sometimes remarkable, sometimes dumb, Imaginarium is its own kind of conundrum. With that being said, it is a very unique movie that defies convention and denies simple explanation. It's challenging to watch because you can clearly see Gilliam's own good vs. evil struggle within himself. Instead of repeatedly stepping inside and outside of Parnassus' mirror, he should have just stayed inside of it indefinitely.

RATING: 3 out of 5

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