Considering he lost one of his actors during production, it’s amazing that Terry Gilliam managed to complete Dr. Parnassus at all. He’s had a string of bad luck that left his version of Don Quixote incomplete, and then the studio decided to release this film so close to the juggernaut Avatar.
Like his other films it is a bit messy and confusing at times, as he catapults the characters into realms of their own imagining. This amazing feat is possible thanks to the titular Imaginarium, a key to the story and how the film manages to continue in spite of Ledger’s death; his character takes on different appearances when inside of it. Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell make cameos to fill in the gaps, and the transitions from one to the other seem quite natural given the Imaginarium’s power.
The problem is that the Doctor, played to a T by Christopher Plummer, made a pact with the devil (Tom Waits) to give his firstborn child in exchange for the love of a beautiful young woman. The devil fulfills his part of the bargain and Parnassus marries her and they have a child. When the devil returns 16 years later to collect his prize, Parnassus isn’t ready to give up his doll-like daughter Valentina (Lily Cole). The two decide to settle the issue through a bet – whoever wins over 5 souls in the following days will decide the girl’s fate. There’s a bit of a muddled love triangle going on between Valentina, a suitor from the theater troupe to which they all belong, and Tony (Heath Ledger); an amnesiac who tags along and proves a natural.
The adventures they share (both inside and outside of the Imaginarium) are appropriately surreal, and may warrant a second viewing just to sort it all out. It’s interesting to see Gilliam working so much with computer graphics, especially in a film that speaks from the heart about the importance of story-telling and imagination without becoming preachy or feeling corny. It does seem to end in a very different direction than it foreshadows, perhaps due to the logistics of working around Ledger’s absence, but it works and is an incredibly original film.
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