While the public cultural playground is abuzz and agog with Avatar, hailed as a fantastical and senses-dizzying movie experience, some of us beg to differ, impressed by the technology but perturbed by the simplistic plot and “white man to the rescue” theme. For the year’s more bedazzling and dream-worldly fantasy sensation, we say, get thee to the new Terry Gilliam film. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus ranks among the greatest achievements to date in the ambitious-but-spotty filmography of Gilliam, who has been trying to match the finery of his masterpiece, Brazil, for almost 25 years.
In Gilliam’s fantastical tale of an immortal magician, Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), who has struck deals with the devil (Tom Waits), we’re treated to a funky-fabulous sideshow of sight and sound. Psychedelic circus acts and wild special effects—without that digital aftertaste—prevail. The very makeshift traveling circus wagon, into which customers are drawn into hallucinatory episodes in contrast to the shabby urban and police-harassing realties outside, could be viewed as a metaphor for Gilliam’s own art and cinematic sorcery. Not surprisingly, the film is the first script collaboration between Gilliam and Charles McKeown since 1988’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, with which the new film shares retro-futurist traits and liberal touches of wild imagination.
Somehow, a strange backstory about the film’s production ties in logically with the overall magical sheen and stubborn can-do spirit of the project—not to mention the checkered history of Gilliam’s filmmaking career. A freethinker and dreamer, Parnassus battles odds and naysayers, and gets things done … usually. Heath Ledger died in the middle of The Imaginarium’s filming, forcing his role to be tweaked into an array of alternate personalities, requiring a few 11th-hour hirings that included Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. Leave it to Gilliam to adapt and roll, with artfulness intact.
Gilliam, who decades ago captured our sense with his gonzo animation sequences in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, is at his best in Imaginarium. He commands technology, storytelling, audacity, and dark fun, conjuring up a rabbit hole for us to fall happily into.