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'Imaginarium' a spectacle of storytelling

Article Published: Apr. 15, 2010 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
'Imaginarium' a spectacle of storytelling

Christopher Plummer and Tom Waits star in 'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.'

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a film about choices.

With the death of Heath Ledger in mid-production, director Terry Gilliam (Brazil, The Fisher King) was faced with his own choice, the result of which is a tasteful and seamless display of a master at his craft.

Visually captivating and dramatically engrossing, Imaginarium is pure Gilliam - the line between fiction and reality is gleefully muddled; the mood is dark, yet fun and offbeat; the casting impeccable; and its grandiose visual effects work wonders.

And while Imaginarium will always retain the distinction of being Ledger's last film, it works as a testament to Gilliam's creativity and the beauty of friendship. Though Ledger had completed most of his performance, a slew of significant scenes was left unfinished.

Enter Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, who, due to a clever rewrite on Gilliam's part, were able to finish Ledger's role in a manner that fits seamlessly within the narrative. To boot, the trio donated their paychecks to Ledger's daughter.

Again, it boils down to choices.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus opens with the titular character (a perfectly cast Christopher Plummer, The Man Who Would Be King) and his rag-tag traveling sideshow troupe setting the stage in modern-day Britain.

Parnassus and company offer audiences an experience like no other - the chance to enter his "Imaginarium," impossibly located on stage behind an aluminum foil mirror. It's a world controlled by the doctor's mind in which participants' dreams come to colorful life. But for a price.

Tall tales, one would think, until the disappearance of a drunken heckler leads us to believe there's more than meets the eye.

Parnassus, it turns out, has been traveling the globe for thousands of years, opening minds and sharing the joys of imagination. His immortality, though, came at a price - winning a bet with the devil, herein called Mr. Nick and played expertly by scene-stealing crooner Tom Waits.

Knowing Parnassus to be a betting man, and unable to pass up a good wager himself, Mr. Nick reappears throughout the doctor's extended life, upping the ante with each go. When it's the love of a woman Parnassus seeks, the devil is happy to oblige, provided he gets the resulting child, Valentina (Lily Cole, St. Trinian's), on her 16th birthday.

With that date rapidly approaching, Parnassus struggles to scheme an escape, or at least an alternative. Right on cue, Nick returns with another bet - whoever collects five souls first keeps Valentina. Unable to refuse, Parnassus accepts, and the race begins.

Along the way, Parnassus and company encounter Tony (Ledger, The Dark Knight), an amnesiac who joins the show and resolves to restore its former glory. In the process, he lures eager souls into the Imaginarium, where their dreams are realized, but where they must choose between selfless, in which Parnassus saves their soul, or selfish, in which it's Nick's to keep.

It's when Tony's motives grow questionable that dream turns to nightmare, all as time continues ticking.

It's in the Imaginarium, though, where Gilliam's visual genius soars. In a Hollywood where computer-generated imagery, often shoddy at that, runs unchecked and rampant, Gilliam uses it to brilliant effect, conjuring images surreal and ethereal, yet grounded in the reality of their beholder. It works because it's a dream, and never does it outshine the dreamer, nor does it ever distract from the story or detract from the characters.

The imagery conjures thoughts of Gilliam's brilliantly odd animation in Monty Python's Flying Circus, while also harking back to the haunting visuals of Brazil.

Thematically, Imaginarium shares much in common with Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - a flawed protagonist suffering the consequences of his life choices, the necessity of imagination and, most importantly, the unabashed fun of it all.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, rated PG-13 for violent images, some sensuality, language and smoking, is playing at the ReelHouse Cinema & Draft in Boone and will be released on DVD April 27.

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