The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a fantastical morality tale, set in the present day. It tells the story of Dr. Parnassus and his extraordinary 'Imaginarium', a travelling show where members of the audience get an irresistible opportunity to choose between light and joy or darkness and gloom.
Blessed with the extraordinary gift of guiding the imaginations of others, Dr. Parnassus is cursed with a dark secret. Long ago he made a bet with the devil, Mr. Nick, in which he won immortality. Many centuries later, on meeting his one true love, Dr. Parnassus made another deal with the devil, trading his immortality for youth, on condition that when his first-born reached its 16th birthday he or she would become the property of Mr. Nick. Valentina is now rapidly approaching this 'coming of age' milestone and Dr. Parnassus is desperate to protect her from her impending fate.
Mr. Nick arrives to collect but, always keen to make a bet, renegotiates the wager. Now the winner of Valentina will be determined by whoever seduces the first five souls. Enlisting a series of wild, comical and compelling characters in his journey, Dr. Parnassus promises his daughter's hand in marriage to the man that helps him win. In this captivating, explosive and wonderfully imaginative race against time, Dr. Parnassus must fight to save his daughter in a never-ending landscape of surreal obstacles—and undo the mistakes of his past once and for all.
To call the passing of Heath Ledger a tragedy is an understatement, as the young actor seemed to be breaking through the glass ceiling, with superb performances in rapid succession. His death, in January of 2008, left fans devastated, family broken, a daughter left with no father, Batman fanatics deeply concerned with thoughts of whether the film was completed and ready, and one project still filming.
In the hands of an ordinary director, the unfortunate accidental overdose would have ended the film, but with Terry Gilliam leading the charge of 'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,' that would not be the case, justified as it may have been. The lunacy of the director's filmography is almost unrivaled, and with the amazing selfless acts of three friends, Ledger's final film role would see the light of day, and, amazingly, would be somewhat coherent in the final result.
"You can't stop stories being told..."
"That's a weak hypothesis."
Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is unique. A former monk, the thousand year old man threw away immortality in a deal with the devil (Tom Waits as Mr. Nick) for love, a love that climaxed with the birth of Valentina (Lily Cole). As is the case with any deal, there are two sides, and the time is coming near for the Devil to get his dues. The traveling theater group led by Parnassus, through which wayward souls are transported into the world of their imagination is on hard times in modern day London, and Valentina, unbeknownst to her, has only a few days left before becoming the property of Mr. Nick. A chance encounter, of sorts, that finds the troupe saving the life of a man hung beneath a bridge gives hope to the crew, though the mystery surrounding the man's background is of great concern. In a new wager with Mr. Nick, Parnassus must save five souls before the Devil claims five of his own, all the participants of the traveling Imaginarium. It seems Parnassus has the leg up, as the man soon known as Tony (Ledger), a charismatic showman who can bring in the female audience, brings attention to the almost forgotten world that is so easily attained by walking through the mirror. With time running out, it's not so much a race as it is a chess game, with everything to lose.
I was deeply concerned as to how well the film would work, considering that it was rumored that only half of Ledger's performance was filmed, and the somewhat lengthy production suspension that resulted from his departure. With Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law volunteering their time (and giving all their earnings to Ledger's daughter), any non-magical film would have been impossible. Perhaps it's magic, or sheer, blind luck, that this film ever saw the light of day, instead of being shelved due to tragedy. Amazingly, the four-way performance actually works in the grand scope of the story, and adds a layer of intrigue and suspense, with some slight rewrites explaining the changes perfectly...so well, in fact, that one can easily forget that they were made out of necessity, rather than as a part of the original design.
Performances are magical, as Plummer is awesome as the old man who may or may not be a true marvel of the mind, while Cole does a solid job in just her third film role. Waits is a marvel as the devil himself, fitting the nasty, tempting, game playing trickster found in the more classic portrayals. But, despite the fact that these three players are the pivotal members of the story, the focus lies solely on the four Tonys, as it were. Ledger will be remembered, in death, for his turn as the Joker in 'The Dark Knight,' but his final performance is nothing to scoff at, as he fits the bill quite nicely. No disrespect to Ledger, but the three fill-ins do, at times, overshadow the man they're mimicking. Depp takes the first turn, and steals the show the moment he removes his mask, for his brief period of time (which was filmed in less than two days due to obligations on 'Public Enemies'). Law adds a level of child-like glee with his turn, becoming the focus of a fantasy of his own, escaping his pursuers, and his reality for a brief moment. The best performance of the entire film, though, bar none, belongs to Bullseye himself, Colin Farrell. Easily discounted for some less-than-stellar film decisions, the man can certainly act, and his body movements, expressions, and even his eyes convey the character with love and respect, filling the shoes left behind in a manner that is very much a tribute. He is given the most difficult segment of the film, emotionally, with the climax, and hits a home run that still has to touch down to Earth.
Amazingly, the use of four actors in one role works quite well, and any fill-in or double work for real world Tony (Ledger) doesn't distract. Far from it. It's mind-boggling, really, that the role was completed as much as it was, with the real world elements all being done (or near-done), to the point that just the worlds of imagination that Tony would enter would need filming, making the rewrite quite painless and natural, rather than complicated. After a short while, viewers can find themselves slipping into the worlds portrayed in the Imaginarium and accepting them, rather than reminding themselves of the auspicious circumstances that led to the changes.
'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus' feels very much like a Gilliam film, with whimsey replacing logic, and extravagant, over-the-top, sensational special effects sometimes replacing story. In a sense, 'Imaginarium' feels like a distant cousin to 'The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,' with the heavy focus on stage plays, accepting the extraordinary and imaginative, and the diverse cast of oddball characters (as well as the potential to view the film dismissively, as a work of imagination or exaggeration, rather than the real events). The film has an interesting theme, with the plays of classic stageplay sensibilities and trickery against modern virtues of scepticism, as well as the old saying "your past will always catch up to you." Mystery makes the film work, yet at the same time, I can see the big reveals playing a big hand in giving the film great replay value, for those hidden "ah-ha!" moments that make Gilliam films work. That said, all the Gilliam magic on display here does not make up for the fact that the tools of the Python himself have gotten a bit rusty, and overly self-indulgent.
Untimely and unfortunate death could not stop this story from being told. The loss of Ledger overshadows the film, and I know that not one single person would keep this film if they could have Heath Ledger back in this world. But we're not given that choice, and must accept the hand given to us. We lost a shining star that day in January, and while this film may be an all-too blunt reminder of what we did lose (particularly with the introduction of the Tony character into the story), rather than mourn the world's loss, we should celebrate his existance and his works, just as Law, Depp, Farrell, and Gilliam do here.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus' is housed on a BD50 Dual Layer Disc, with an odd Region A/B playback status (why no C?). There is a glut of pre-menu content that cannot be skipped through the top menu button, so keep that finger ready on the next chapter button!
Sony brings 'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus' to Blu-ray with an AVC MPEG-4 encode at 1080p (in the 1.85:1 frame) that certainly reaches for the clouds, as it were.
Colors are beyond assorted, as this film sports a wild, ever-changing aesthetic (it is, after all, a Gilliam film) that can, at times, seem a bit schizophrenic. The result is sheer, unbridled eye candy, though, as the tones in the real world are perfectly natural, drab, muted, somewhat dingey and somber, while the world of imagination sports the pizazz, brilliant primaries, and colors that know no limits. Detail is also quite superb, as the tiniest snowflake, or even pore, are often visible quite clearly, with beautiful definition of clothing or sets (the paintwork for the traveling stage, for example). Even the white ear hairs of the devil leap (disgustingly) off his head. The picture is amazingly deep and quite enveloping, and can truly suck the viewer right into the film. Best of all, this disc is superb in its technical prowess, as DNR, edge enhancement, artifacting, banding, and aliasing are not a part of this equation.
That said, perfection is not met, despite how often it is flirted with. Black levels are often too bright for their own good, not fitting with the dark mood the film often has. While no flaw of the transfer or disc, there are a few moments where the green/blue screen work makes itself known all too well, as characters can stand out from their environments in all the wrong ways, with different lighting elements than the scenes themselves. There's an odd vertical orange line for one full shot at the 1 hour, 8 minute spot, which is amazingly out of place in an otherwise perfectly clean film. Sony did an amazing, consistent job on this one, and they deserve great amounts of praise.
But what good is great video without great audio? The experience that is 'Doctor Parnassus' is amplified with a gorgeous DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. Much like the video, it's perfection slightly teased, almost attained, flirted with often, but still quite solid and worthy of kind words.
The film receives a very active sound mix. Motion is solid, localization is utilized quite frequently and superbly, with lots of atmosphere and effects loading the room with damn-near non-stop activity. It's quite the circus, honestly, but it comes through amazingly clear, with little jockeying for that coveted prioritization. Bass levels are somewhat light, but they pop up from time to time when needed for light emphasis, and the effect works. Explosions, for example, are thunderous and quite fun. When the stage constructs itself, its an audio marvel how many things are going on at once.
But, alas, that is also the main (possibly only) fault with this audio mix: too much going on at the same time. On more than one occasion, the score can completely obliterate the dialogue, making a few lines extremely difficult to discern. I am still wowed by this one, and think the world of this track, but it falls just short of the best of the best.
There are a variety of subtitles available, as well as a lossy Spanish dub and a lossless Portuguese track, for the non-English speaking.
While this glut of extras looks immense, the truth of the matter is they are all too short, and miss some of the more interesting and important points that I wish had been hit.
'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus' isn't the best Gilliam film ever made, but it's far from the worst. This film will be remembered more for the performances within, and the men and women involved, particularly Heath Ledger, but there is more to this film than what it is famous for. The performances by Plummer, Waits, and Farrell deserve praise, and the imagery found in the film is as imaginative and unique as the film itself. With gorgeous video and riveting audio, this release is definitely recommended for purchase or rental, but I can't help but wish the extras had more beef, and less fluff.