Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, The–Gilliam's Misfire

Terry Gilliam’s troubled production of “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is a misfire, a flawed fable that still feels unfinished.  At once over-baked and under-baked, the picture suffers from the usual Gilliam problems, inconsistent storytelling and disjointed narrative, plus some new ones: the fantasy elements and CGI special effects are not that great considering Gilliam's panache for spectacle.

Bringing the director’s vision to the screen was a labor of love for his talented production team.  Thus, the first reaction at the Cannes Film Festival, where the movie world premiered (out of competition), was a relief.  It could have been much worse, as a result of the sudden death of star Heath Ledger before principal shooting was over.  But few critics thought that the film was any good, or ready for public showings.  Thus, theatrical prospects beyond the global festival circuit and Gilliam's loyal fans are not particularly promising.

Nearly abandoned after Ledger's death, in January 2008, the version shown reflects frantic efforts to complete the project at all costs. In fact, three major actors stepped in to replace Ledger: Johnny Depp (who also had appeared in Gilliam's “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”), Jude Law, and Colin Farrell.

The saga centers on a traveling stage show led by Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), an old magician whose immortality stems from a bizarre deal he had struck with the Devil (Tom Waits), namely to give up his daughter when she reaches the age of 16.  However, for some mysterious reasons, the doctor chose to ignore his side of the bargain. 

When the tale begins, Parnassus is romantically involved with Valentina (Lily Cole), a much younger girl.  The other actors are Percy (Verne Troyer), as the troupe’s resident little person, and Anton (Andrew Garfield), as the supporting player who's also in love with Valentina.

Heath Ledger plays Tony, an amnesiac discovered by the troupe and added to their ranks.  Rescued from death, Tony provides a possible way for Doctor Parnassus to win a wager with the devil.  While Tony occupies the London-set framing story, his three successors play versions of his character in stories set in other milieus.  However, while the strategy of Tony's face-changing was a necessity due to Ledger's death, it still feels extraneous, a narrative gimmick, a disruptive contrivance in both thematic and emotional ways.

Straining for a dual spectacle, Gilliam constructs a set with two sides of a mirror, one of which is set within the confines of the showman’s mind. Problem is, neither world is imaginative enough—not by Gilliam's or the genre's standards.  Lack of magic and genuine mystery characterizes the entire narrative, which is diffuse and rambling.

In one revealing scene, Johnny Depp's Tony makes an observation about stars that strikes too close to home: “They are beyond fear because they are forever young, they are like gods.”   In another instant, Parnassus tells the troupe, “The secret is not to hide, to go places people never expected you at,” a sentence that could have come from Gilliam himself talking to his troupe (and the audience).

There is no doubt that “Imaginarium” is a personal work, sort of a summation of Gilliam’s entire artistic career, containing elements that were present in his previous works.   You can see Gilliam as a Parnassus-like character, a older, tired man, who has been trying to enlighten his audience, to teach them to let their imagination fly and flourish, to consider the power of dreams as a richness, not as a burden.  Overall, though, “Imaginarium” is closer to other bad Gilliam pictures, such as “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” than to good ones like “Brazil” or “The Fisher King.”


Gilliam has always lacked narrative discipline and directorial restraint, but in this movie, his known penchant for fantasy and visuals is so excessive that it dwarfs all the other elements, without even being engaging in its own right. 


Sadly, Gilliam has not made a truly good movie in 14 years, arguably since “Twelve Monkeys” in 1995.  “Imaginarium” should be added to the portfolio of the ongoing career of a dreamer-outsider who continues to fight and sacrifice for the making of personal, idiosyncratic pictures. 




Tony – Heath Ledger
Dr. Parnassus –Christopher Plummer
Percy -Verne Troyer
Anton – Andrew Garfield
Valentina -Lily Cole
Mr. Nick -Tom Waits
Imaginarium Tony 1- Johnny Depp
Imaginarium Tony 2- Jude Law
Imaginarium Tony 3 –Colin Farrell


An Infinity Features Entertainment and Poo Poo Pictures production, in association with Davis Film Entertainment produced in association with Telefilm Canada.
International sales: Mandate Intl., Los Angeles.
Produced by William Vince, Amy Gilliam, Samuel Hadida, Terry Gilliam.

Executive producers, David Valleau, Victor Hadida
Directed by Terry Gilliam.
Screenplay, Gilliam, Charles McKeown.