Movie Review: The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

This weekend saw the release of The Imaginarium of Dr. Gilliam, Heath Ledger’s last film, and the latest from the American Python.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Directed by Terry Gilliam

Written by Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown


Christopher Plummer as Dr. Parnassus
Andrew Garfield as Anton
Lily Cole as the Valentina
Verne Troyer as Percy
Heath Ledger as Tony
Johnny Depp as Tony
Jude Law as Tony
Tom Waits as Mr. Nick
Erika Conway as Young Boy’s Mother

Full Cast and Crew information is available at the imdb


A carnival attraction of sorts comes to town, a rickety, outsize movable stage drawn by horses, designed according to the artistic sensibilities of another era. A story-telling travelling magician, Dr. Parnassus, heads the small company on board. The good doctor has been blessed or cursed with eternal life, and he wants to bring his peculiar wisdom to the people, one at a time. Drunks stumbling home from pubs and children cruising the fairgrounds alike are invited to pass through Parnassus’s magic mirror. It reflects, of course; used properly, they find within only what they bring to it.

The good doctor faces many complications. The present age doesn’t much like him, and even his own staff sometimes break the rules that govern the mirror’s use. His ongoing wagers with the devil, of course, complicate his life and work tremendously.

And then there’s the matter of Tony, a mysterious man Parnassus and his company find hanging beneath a bridge.

High Points:

The film has no shortage of crazed and spectacular visuals. The film doesn’t work consistently. Still, few directors can blend biting satire with eyeball-kicking, and some scenes equal the kind of inspired lunacy that characterized the Pythons.

I have to wonder what Gilliam would have done with Lord of the Rings. I fear what he would do with Avatar‘s budget.

Low Points:

Many of the film’s odd turns eventually make sense. Other questions remain unanswered, and the film is weaker for it. Motivations are not always clear. Given that we’re in some version of the real world, how does Parnassus remain unknown to the broader public? What does it mean to give one’s soul to Dr. Parnassus? The film features too much insane sensibility and not enough storytelling sense.

The Scores:

Originality: 5/6. The Faustian bargain, the questing mage, and the magic mirror certainly have lengthy histories in literature, and modern media has shown us a few creepy carnivals. However, Gilliam has always had his own aesthetic, bizarre bricolage of our culture’s history. Even here, where he raids his own past (a number of the images recall cut-out animation from his Monty Python days), he retains a unique vision.

Effects: 6/6. The film combines traditional and CGI effects. Given that these recreate imaginary worlds, it’s difficult to criticize them. Even when they seem askew (the shattered glass, for example), I suspect they look as the director intended. Certainly, Gilliam set loose with CGI proves more interesting than George Lucas.

Story: 3/6. The story and its conflicts need to be stronger to carry this film.

Acting: 5/6. The film features a number of fine performances, including Christopher Plummer and Tom Waits as Parnassus and the devil. Young Lily Cole does fine against these seasoned performers; Andrew Garfield is good, though not great. Most of the publicity and attention has gone, however, to the actors playing Tony. Certainly, one suspects they were the reason for the trendy teens in attendance.

Most people will remember the Joker as Heath Ledger’s last role, but he actual makes his final appearance as Tony. Thanks to the wonders of the Imaginarium, Johnny Depp and and Jude Law also get to play the part. It’s a tribute to all of them that this actually works, and causes surprisingly little confusion.1

This film is already confusing enough.

Production: 6/6.

Emotional Response: 4/6. I’m a fan of Terry Gilliam. His films can be spectacular. I like The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys, and I love Brazil. This one works in places, but he’s juggling too many ideas. It’s a dazzling feat, but never quite reaches its potential.

Overall: 4/6.

In total, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus receives 33/42.


1. Scott Slemmons reminds me that Colin Farrell also (briefly) plays Tony. Officially, he’s listed as a stunt double.

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