I love going to a movie I know little about, then finding myself delighted with what I see. Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a recent example. Of course, almost everyone had heard of the film because actor Heath Ledger passed away during filming. With speculation about Parnassus rampant, Gilliam and co-writer Charles McKeown eventually reworked the script and cast Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to fill in for Ledger.
Although set in modern-day London, the film’s dark streets and costumes resemble a much earlier era. Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is a dreamer and creative artist who harbors a deep secret. He travels the streets of London pulling along his whimsical Imaginarium -- a traveling side show that beckons onlookers to come on stage and step through the Dr.’s magic mirror.
Helping with this charade, Percy (Verne Troyer) is the perfect sidekick who keeps the customers coming and the show moving along. Co-worker Anton (Andrew Garfield) evens out Percy’s sarcastic personality. He’s a starry-eyed youth who has eyes for Parnassus’ daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), and will do anything to be near her. Competition enters the scene when commoner Tony (Ledger) gets rescued from the streets -- and he and Valentina are instantly attracted to each other.
Most viewers will be immediately entranced with the movie’s mystifying story, the incredible look of the film and the performances. I was willing to go along for the ride right from the beginning, and the story becomes even more intriguing as the plot thickens. We soon learn that years ago -- when Parnassus was in his prime and seeking one particular beauty – he made a deal with the devil, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits). This agreement involved turning his daughter over to Mr. Nick when she was 16. With the time close at hand, Mr. Nick is hot on the trail and licking his lips at Valentina’s every move. Can making another deal with Dr. Nick save Parnassus’ precious daughter?
Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini (Tideland) and editor Mick Audsley (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) had their work cut out for them here, but they excel in capturing every magical moment so inclusively we want to revisit every scene. Stepping through that magic mirror transports Parnassus’ victims -- customers -- into an imaginary world that changes their personality and outlook on life. Hopefully, when they emerge back on stage, they will shower him with cash as well as their expensive possessions. These fanciful worlds come alive through CG and the efforts of Peerless Camera Company, the London-based optical house.
It’s in these magical worlds where we meet our quartet of gents playing Tony in different mediums. Ledger (The Dark Knight) is terrific in his transformations and brings great energy to the film. Depp (Public Enemies), Jude Law (Sherlock Holmes) and Colin Farrell (Crazy Heart) receive little screen time in Parnassus, but their transitions as Tony work extremely well within the story’s imaginary elements.
While I found Plummer exceptional in his anomalous role and Cole delightful as the girl quickly becoming a woman in more ways than one, it’s Troyer who amused me the most. His idiosyncratic character, enhanced by his small size, is hilarious. In fact, he’s one of my picks for this year’s Best Supporting Actor.
Parents should note that while the movie’s trailers may look enticing to youngsters, a “PG-13” rating seems quite appropriate for this film.
I’m placing The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus on my “must-see- again” list. It’s sure to entertain anyone who likes movies that go beyond the ordinary.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated “PG-13” for violent images, some sensuality, language and smoking)
Review also posted at www.reviewexpress.com.