If ever there was a film whose context loomed larger than its content then Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus is that film. And not just for the obvious reasons, either. For the Gilliam faithful this is the auteur's much-vaunted return to form, a self-proclaimed conclusion to the trilogy of films begun with Time Bandits and continued with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. For the rest of the world, this is the final performance ever given by Heath Ledger - a key member of the ensemble cast who died midway through filming a role in which he first appears hanging from the girders of a bridge. The points of contact between Ledger's character in the film and the actual end of his life are truly eerie. Prescient, even.
Parnassus is a film that is virtually impossible to discuss purely as a film. You cannot divorce it from its creator, nor from the circumstances in which it was created. The sad reality is that if Parnassus entertains significant mainstream success it will come about largely as a result of Ledger-tourism, the film itself being far too abstract and difficult a piece to draw much attention from the masses otherwise. Equally real - and somewhat sadly so for those of us who have always wanted Gilliam to find the widespread acceptance that he deserves - is that a prior knowledge of his previous work is very likely a requirement to fully appreciate what is happening here and many of those with that knowledge will struggle to accept Gilliam's heavy use of CGI based special effects over his normal practical work while also having to get around a very flat performance by Verne Troyer in the process.
Parnassus is not going to bring Gilliam any farther into the mainstream. This is no Fisher King or Twelve Monkeys. No, it's not a mainstream film, but that's not to say it isn't a very good one or an important one. This is the work of a master looking over his life and work and offering up a comment on it.
Christopher Plummer is the titular Doctor Parnassus, a one-time monk who won immortality in a bet with Mr. Nick - the devil himself, as played by Tom Waits - with whom he has since spent thousands of years engaged in a series of contests, one of which will now very likely claim the life of Parnassus' sixteen year old daughter if he cannot find some way to stop it. When not gambling away the lives of his future children, how has Parnassus spent his days? Largely roaming the world in his Imaginarium, an old-style traveling circus sideshow pulled from town to town folded up into a horse-drawn wagon, setting up shop wherever they may find themselves so that Parnassus can - with the help of his small circle of companions and a magical mirror - literally immerse participants in the power of their own imagination. This is, in fact, the core of Parnassus' competition with Nick: The Doctor believes the power of the imagination can be used to enlighten and raise people, Nick counters that most will choose the base and cruel. Nick, of course, wins far more often than he loses.
The intimate circle of traveling companions is broken when, late one night, the group stumbles across a man hanging by the neck from a bridge. They pull him in, expecting him to be dead but he is not - saved by the metal pipe he swallowed before hanging to keep his airway from being crushed. He claims to have lost his memory and joins the troupe, offering to help Parnassus win his latest devilish wager by incorporating modern techniques into the traveling road show. And it works, even, or seems to - at least until it becomes clear that the discovered man is doing little more than corrupt the group from within in a quest to continue hiding himself from the public eye and the gangsters who left him for dead.
As a thematic conclusion to Time Bandits and Munchausen the progression to Parnassus is a clear one. Time Bandits gives us the power of imagination in youth. Munchausen a more world weary, slightly older version. And Parnassus, well Parnassus is by far the most weathered of the lot. Imagination is still a glorious, wonderful thing, but those blessed with it squander it constantly. It is co-opted and corrupted, and though it cannot be crushed by any power it can be - and is - forgotten and abandoned even by those who should know its power the best. Parnassus himself is a fragile hero, given to despair and alcohol. He is a man who has gotten old but not wise, a man who cannot resist the urge to gamble away what he has. And he is surely a reflection of Gilliam's own view of himself at this stage of his career, a man left to choose between either pandering to the masses for their money or living on the outskirts of society, kicked aside and discarded. The themes here are pure Gilliam and will be welcomed and embraced by any of his long time fans.
The visuals? There is plenty of fine vintage to be had on that front as well. The juxtaposition of Parnassus' traveling show against the modern London where it finds itself is classic Gilliam, a direct nod back to techniques used in The Fisher King. The Imaginarium itself is all cutouts and gloriously tactile stuff. And when you get to the CGI when patrons enter the world of the Imaginarium, well even there the design work is very clearly Gilliam's own and instantly recognizable. And this last is both a good and bad thing. Good because, well, it's Gilliam. Bad because Gilliam's spin on fantasy has always been marvelously earthy and tactile, the physicality of his creations an integral part of them and CGI in Gilliam's worlds just plain feels wrong. Moreso, the familiarity of the design work means fans can look at the CG and easily imagine how he would have accomplished these effects physically a decade or two ago - there is scarcely anything here that would be more difficult to achieve than the flying sequences in Brazil - which makes the move to CGI stick in the craw that much more. It's not particularly bad CGI, it just feels doubly out of place.
To the acting. A quiet and muted affair, particularly by Gilliam standards but as befits the themes of the film, Parnassus is very much an ensemble piece with no true lead. Those expecting Ledger to carry the thing need to adjust their expectations accordingly. He is but one piece of the puzzle. And as for the other pieces of his particular puzzle, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell all do a remarkable job of taking on Ledger's character in his various fantasy-world incarnations. The transformations feel completely organic and in keeping with the film - so much so that it's hard to imagine it ever having been planned any other way. Plummer and Waits are magnificent - though they have surprisingly little one on one interaction - and the support players generally strong. The one exception is Verne Troyer, who must have been cast 100% for his look - which is perfect - and 0% for his acting ability - which is not - though, in fairness, he's not as bad as some have made him out to be, just remarkably monotone.
At this stage of his career, it is hard to imagine that Gilliam wasn't fully aware of what sort of film he was making here. Were Imaginarium an attempt at returning to the big box office returns of his most successful years then it would have to be put down as an abject failure - the odd structure and pacing of the piece just horribly at odds with box office tastes. However, as a reflection on his own life and work, as the product of a director looking at his own path and capturing it on film, Imaginarium is very much a success, though a qualified one. An absolute must for existing fans and a curious oddity for casual passers-by.