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The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus | DVD Review

Somewhat reminiscent of Tim Burton’s Big Fish but on a grander scale, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is one of the most visually stunning films you will ever see.

Surprisingly, given its lavish set pieces and surreal imagery, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is nowhere near as much of a head trip as some of writer/director Terry Gilliam’s more beloved films like Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and 12 Monkeys. In fact, Parnassus is probably Gilliam’s most straightforward and escapist film yet – by his standards, at least – and it’s a shame that the tragedy of Heath Ledger’s untimely death during filming is what it will be most remembered for. Because while his performance (and that of the entire cast, for that matter) is very strong, it’s the dazzling fantasy of the visuals and story – its ‘Gilliam-ness’, if you will – that make Parnassus a special film.

Christopher Plummer (The Insider, The Last Station) is Doctor Parnassus, an ageless man who visits London’s seedier neighborhoods with his traveling sideshow of a theater company, offering audiences the opportunity to step through a mirror into their own imaginations and make a moral choice between good and evil. Members of the troupe include his daughter Valentina (the striking Lily Cole, in her first feature film), the diminutive Percy (Verne Troyer, Austin Powers‘ Mini-Me), who acts as Parnassus’ conscience, and Anton (Andrew Garfield, the upcoming Facebook flick The Social Network), a young man smitten with Valentina. This being a Terry Gilliam film, viewers are asked to suspend their disbelief and just accept what they’re seeing on screen, and so we learn that a long, long time ago Parnassus made a deal with the devilish Mr. Nick (the incomparable Tom Waits, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, who steals every scene he’s in), in which he promises him his as yet unborn daughter on her sixteenth birthday in exchange for immortality. With only a few days left until he has to hold up his end of the bargain, Parnassus is depressed and trying to figure a way out of the deal when the caravan saves Tony (Ledger, The Dark Knight), a mysterious man they see hanging from a bridge. Can this man be Parnassus’ ticket to getting out of the deal and keeping his beloved Valentina? Anthony joins the troupe, offering up new ideas about how to modernize the Imaginarium, and Mr. Nick offers Parnassus one last chance to keep his daughter: the first of them to claim five souls wins Valentina. With the untimely death of Ledger, Gilliam had to figure a way to cmplete the film and he enlisted Johnny Depp (Alice in Wonderland), Jude Law (Repo Men), and Colin Farrell (Crazy Heart) to portray Tony on the three occasions in which he steps through the mirror into the Imaginarium. Far from being confusing or trite, this actually works very well. As Waits somewhat morbidly suggests in one of the many extras included on the discs, Ledger’s death ended up actually being an asset rather than a liability, at least in terms of the finished film.

Co-written with Gilliam’s longtime collaborator Charles McKeown (Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus can be a little off kilter in its pacing, but it’s an endearing parable about the struggle between good and evil and how we all have it in us to make the right choices in life. There’s much more going on (this did come from the mind of Terry Gilliam, after all), but if you had to summarize it in a nutshell, that would be it. The performances from the entire cast are top-notch; in particular, Andrew Garfield is a comedic revelation and Tom Waits plays the slimy Mr. Nick to perfection. Somewhat reminiscent of Tim Burton’s Big Fish but on a grander scale, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is one of the most visually stunning films you will ever see, and the musical score by Mychael and Jeff Danna only adds to it, almost becoming a character in itself, and there are even a couple of goofy songs (“We Love Violence” and “We Are The Children Of The World”, a hilarious spoof of “We Are The World”) that evoke Gilliam’s early days with Monty Python.

With Gilliam’s somewhat twisted imagination on full view in the film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is an absolute joy to behold in this excellent 1.78:1 widescreen transfer, and the 5.1 surround audio emphasizes the excellence of the score. With this being Heath Ledger’s final film, many of the extras included on the two-disc DVD release from E1 Entertainment naturally lean toward him, but there are no less than 13 special features included, which leaves plenty of room for extras that deal with the actual making of the film itself:

Feature Introduction by Terry Gilliam
Gilliam explains how this is his most straight-forward and purely-for-entertainment film and that the decision to remove the contractually obligated ‘A film by Terry Gilliam’ from the screen credits and replace it with ‘A film from Heath Ledger and Friends’ was the cast and crew’s tribute to the late actor.

Feature Commentary with Director Terry Gilliam
In what might understandably have been a two-hour eulogy for Ledger, Gilliam actually keeps the fawning to a respectful minimum in the feature commentary. He discusses Ledger in the appropriate respectful way, describing him as an actor coming into his own who may well have grown into the greatest actor of his generation, but the praise doesn’t dominate Gilliam’s monologue. He imparts plenty of interesting information about the making of the film and heaps praise on the whole cast and crew, coming off as a humble man who is in constant awe of the respect and dedication that the people he works with actually bring to the productions they work on with him.

Deleted Scene with Commentary by Terry Gilliam
This scene from early in the story is of a video-game-obsessed boy’s version of the world behind the mirror, where he has to choose between fun (evil) and hard work (good). Apart from being a little heavy-handed in its message, Gilliam explains that the scene was cut for flow reasons. The rest of the commentary is basically Gilliam describing what’s transpiring on the screen.

Behind the Mirror
This three and a half minute featurette explains the traveling show and what, exactly, the Imaginarium is. It features some comments from Gilliam, Plummer, Cole, Garfield, Waits, and producers Amy Gilliam and Samuel Hadida.

The Imaginarium of Terry Gilliam
More or less an expansion of the Behind the Mirror featurette, this six and a half minute promotional video consists of many of the principal actors and crew hailing Gilliam and his vision as they discuss the film.

Building the Monastery
In this seven-plus minute featurette, the film’s visual effects supervisor, John Paul Docherty, and his crew explain what went into creating what we see on screen for about 15 seconds at the beginning of a scene where Mr. Nick meets Parnassus at a monastery. From Gilliam’s head, to storyboarding, to set-building, through filming and CG elements, it gives the viewer a deeper appreciation of the hard work and many hands that go into every aspect of getting a scene onto film.

“The Drunk” Multi Angle Featurette
Viewers can watch a two-minute scene from early in the film four different ways (five if you count all four on screen at once): pre-visualization and storyboards, actor with blue screen, draft effects (the same as the blue screen but with early renditions of the CG elements included), and the final version from the feature itself.

Heath Ledger and Friends
Gilliam explains the dilemma the production faced after Ledger died during shooting. Do they just give up or do they re-work the script slightly and try to make it an even better film than originally intended? Obviously they went ahead and made the film, with Depp, Law, and Farrell stepping in as Anthony in three different excursions behind the mirror. This almost six minute featurette includes comments from Depp and Law about how and why they came aboard and it also includes most of the cast and crew praising Ledger’s work.

Heath Ledger Wardrobe Tests with Commentary by Terry Gilliam
An endearing two minutes of Ledger modeling various costumes used in the film and mugging for the camera, set to some of the film’s music. Gilliam’s on screen (via P in P) commentary is also touching as he reminisces about his time with Ledger. Weirdest and most morbid bit: Ledger wearing the suit and performing some of the dance steps that were ultimately performed by Depp in the film.

Heath Ledger Interview
A 2007 radio interview Ledger did for Beyond the Subtitles, an indie film radio show hosted by Stephen Schaefer. In the interview, Ledger explains how in about 3 weeks he’s going to start filming The Imaginarium with Gilliam, and how he doesn’t determine the success of his films by how much money they make but by the personal and professional bonds he forges wjhile working on them.

Dr. Parnassus Around the World
This almost wordless featurette consists of video footage of the film’s premieres at Cannes in May of 2009, London and Rome in October of 2009, and Tokyo in January of 2010. Of particular note is the dress that the statuesque Cole wears in Tokyo, which makes her legs look about eight feet long. Not that we’re complaining!

UK Premiere Featurette
This is an eight and a half minute video of the pre-screening introduction of the cast and crew by Gilliam himself. Not much information is dispersed, but it is nice to see Gilliam’s sense of humor shine as he paces about the stage introducing everyone, pleading with the audience right before the film is about to begin to “lower your expectations”.

The Artwork of Doctor Parnassus
Four and a half minutes in which Gilliam discusses how he wanted the art direction to be extreme and how they went about accomplishing the daunting task of getting the surreal images out of his head and onto the screen.

Just about every one of Gilliam’s films has been a love it or hate it kind of deal, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is no different. But it’s worth seeing just so you can make up your own mind about it. A word of advice, though: try not to think about the circumstances behind the making of the film; just let the fantasy world of Terry Gilliam unfurl in front of you and enjoy it for what it is: a fantastical journey through a world as messed up – but a lot more fun – than the world in which we live.

Movie rating – 4

Disc Rating – 4.5

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