The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

Try Searching Our Archives or Requesting a Review

parnassus 1.jpg

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

Directed by: Terry Gilliam

Starring: Christopher Plummer, Lily Cole, Heath Ledger, Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Andrew Garfield, Verne Troyer

Rated: PG13

Running Time: 2h 3m

TMM Score: 3 stars out of 5

STRENGTHS: Acting, Story Concept

WEAKNESSES: Visual Effects, Uneven Story Structure


An Ancient Storyteller and his band of entertainers, travel the world, opening people’s imaginations and competing with The Devil to enthrall their souls. Now, a new wager, threatens the life of his daughter who may be falling for a mysterious, dashing, and shady new member of their troupe.

A Sad Forgiveness

It is impossible to write about this entry into Terry Gilliam’s oeuvre without acknowledging the tragic death of Heath Ledger. Cast as the film’s inciting character, Heath Ledger’s untimely death spawned and air of sadness that blankets the film, especially considering the tragic nature of his character. 

parnassus 5.jpg

Of course, as they say, the show must go on, so “The Imaginarium” did as well. in an outpouring of cinematic industry kinship, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, Jude Law stepped in to play Heath Ledger’s character, Tony’s, alter ego when he is in the mirror world. What this film would have looked like had Ledger not departed can never be known. How much film had to be scrapped, how many scenes were restructured, what funding fell through as a result, I do not know. 

For these reasons, the film, in all of its imperfection, seems to get a pass from me, as I find myself wondering how a film production would recover from such a blow. The only even somewhat similar circumstances I can think of off the top of my head is Brandon Lee’s death during the filming of “The Crow,” and the massive reshoot efforts undertaken to remove Kevin Spacey from the film “All the Money in the World,” coincidentally played by Cristopher Plummer who co starred with Ledger in “Imaginarium.”

So those are my caveats for a film plagued by problems. I watch this film with a wave of sad forgiveness and dream of its original intentions.

A Few Simple Thoughts

“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” isn’t what I would call 'Prime Gilliam.’ There are certainly better films he has made but as usual it is full of delightfully whimsical and dark imagination, characters, sets, and concepts. An uneven film, in its best moments eloquently expounds the struggle between higher passions and lower ones, or perhaps properly attuned passions and unrestrained ones. However, its lows equally plumb the depths of meaningless cgi sequences and confusing reveals of character, motivation, and relationship.

The cast is among my favorite in Terry Gilliam’s work. Andrew Garfield, almost unknown at the time, plays and agonizingly weak but lovable friend-zoned love interest that makes Heath Ledger look all the more charming and suave and sly. Cristopher Plummer is perfect in his role as the world weary, forgotten sherpa of imagination and foe of Mr. Nick, the bargaining, truth with a twist telling Deceiver of Old, played by Tom Waits. Even Johnny Depp couldn’t turn me off to the changing faces of the character Tony, as we learn about his various personas.

The weakest parts of the film are almost certainly the cgi sequences. One of Gilliam’s finest traits is his love for practical effects and simple compositing. When the film enters the mirror world and everything gets all CG it doesn’t have the effect of Dorothy leaving her house and entering Munchkinland, as I believe he was hoping it would. If this film had the budget to do “Avatar” quality visual effects, it might have worked, but as it is, the images lack real substance. It’s more like the film enters a video game world. Not a current game either. An old click adventure like "Myst." 


It may have its weaknesses but in the end, this is still a Terry Gilliam film and I’ll take that pretty much any day. Even the Cinephile isn’t missing anything by skipping this one but if Gilliam is a favorite of yours, as he is mine, then it is definitely worth a watch.

Review by: Michael McDonald

Review Written By:

Michael Mcdonald