The first problem with “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is the title. I can’t remember it! I saw the film last night, but had to look up the title on the theatre’s website this morning in order to write this review. Each time I invited people to come see this film with me, I had to look up the title first. Click here to see the film trailer.
As far as I could see, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” (I had to look up at the first paragraph to remember the title again!) is a remake of the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale. You remember it: the miller’s beautiful daughter gets locked up by the king, who expects her to spin straw into gold. She can’t do it, but the dwarf-like Rumpelstiltskin shows up and helps her, in return for her promise to give him her first born child. Later, when the child is born, he shows up again and demands the child. After much begging from her, he offers that she can keep the child if she can guess his name. Of course, she overhears his name, so she gets to keep the child in the end.
In the remake, we meet the Devil himself (played by Tom Waits with a pencil mustache), rather than Rumpelstiltskin, so to some extent this is also a rewriting of all of those stories of people-selling-their-souls-to-the-Devil-but-through-their-own-goodness-and/or-cleverness-winning-them-back.
The back story is that the Devil has made several deals with the title character – played by Christopher Plummer looking like a grubbier version of Dumbledore – though the nature of those deals is never completely clear. Apparently the first one gave Doctor Parnassus immortality. The second deal gave him his mortality back, along with youth and success so he could win the woman he loved. When his wife is 60, she miraculously gets pregnant, but then dies in childbirth.
At the time of the story, it is 16 years later. Doctor Parnassus travels around in a sort of gypsy-wagon-cum-portable-stage with his daughter Valentina (gorgeous and leggy, of course), a dwarf named Percy (who seems to be there for comic relief), and a young man named Anton (who, predictably, is in love with Valentina). They park the wagon and set up shop wherever the dregs of society hang out, hoping to lure them into their Imaginarium.
The Imaginarium is a sort of magical portal to the world of fantasy, opened when Doctor Parnassus is in a trance-like state and entered by walking through a mirror (shades of Alice in Wonderland here).
Here’s where the film is at its least coherent. It may just be my own lack of imagination, or maybe I’m just a bit slow, but it took several trips into the mirror before I figured out what it was about. It’s not like the wardrobe entrance to Narnia, for example, where the other side looks more or less the same every time anyone enters, or the looking glass in Alice, where it’s exactly the same as the everyday world, only mirror-imaged. Here, the other side of the portal is whatever the visitor dreams. So, of course, if the visitor is a wealthy middle-aged woman, the dream involves a very large collection of shoes…(!). If it’s a male pre-pubescent child, it involves entering a Nintendo DS-inspired universe where you can kill everything easily and bloodlessly. And, of course, dreams can be nightmares as well. The animation is gorgeous, and, dream or nightmare, quite wild and fast-moving, sometimes too fast-moving to take it all in.
So it turns out that Doctor Parnassus’s most recent deal with the Devil involved promising that he will give his child to the Devil when she turns 16. (Who would promise a thing like that? Premises like that always annoy me because I can’t imagine anyone making such a deal.) Rather predictably, he is desperate to find a way out of the deal. And a new face has turned up: Tony, played by Heath Ledger, but no one’s sure if he’s a good guy or a bad guy. (Anton and Tony: couldn’t the writers think of two names that are NOT derived from one single name?). And, again predictably, Tony is also after Valentina, which means he and Anton don’t exactly get along.
Like Rumpelstiltskin, the Devil offers Doctor Parnassus a way out: both of them will try to win five souls. Whoever gets there first, wins. Presumably that sets up the Doctor as the winner of souls to the good side, and the Devil to the bad, but even that isn’t very clear.
So as people enter the mirror, they are faced with a choice, sometimes quite obvious good vs. bad, but, confusingly, sometimes it just seems to be a choice: any choice. You can guess how the film ends, though not in any detail, since what follows is much mayhem and wild animation.
By the way, if you’re drawn by the fact that Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell are in it, don’t bother, because they’re all very brief cameo appearances in the Imaginarium.
Anyway, if you like pretty animation, and live-action people interacting with that animation, you’ll like this film. If you like a coherent plot that you can more or less follow, with perhaps a plot twist or two and a satisfying resolution at the end, you definitely will not like this film.