I love Terry Gilliam. I know that film critics aren't supposed to open a review with such an obvious and subjective opinion, so call the press police. I'm guilty. From his Monty Python work to Time Bandits to Brazil and all points thereafter, Mr. Gilliam has been one of my very favorite storytellers and movie-makin' educators. His silliness and darkness, surreality and sweetness, his sense of adventure of endearing youthfulness ... he's just one of those filmmakers who truly "speak" to me, and I know I'm not alone in my affection for his varied and eclectic works.
Having said that, I now say this: I haven't thought much of the man's last three films. I've tried (and tried) to foster an affection for Fear and Loathing..., but for the most part it just won't take. I struggled through Tideland at the Toronto Film Festival one year and quite simply did not like the film. At all. And The Brothers Grimm felt, to me (of course), like surface-level Gilliam that had much of its soul torn out thanks to too many cooks cooped up in Gilliam's own kitchen.
So there's where I'm at, Gilliam-wise. Oh, except for his new film, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, which feels sort of like a favorite uncle just burst through the door, smiling and loaded with nifty presents. (So his last few visits weren't so hot; he's still your favorite uncle.) To this lifelong Gilliam devotee, Imaginarium feels like it was cut from the same imagination cloth that also produced The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and (at least in part) his classic adventure Time Bandits. Only this time out, the filmmaker has the limitless capabilities of CGI to use as a palette -- and if you've seen how imaginative Terry Gilliam can be with "practical" effects, then you'll probably be eye-dazzled by Imaginarium's finest moments.
The tale is one of a very old man, his 16-year-old daughter, a lovestruck assistant, a tiny man with a big heart, and a stranger recently saved from the gallows. This colorful crew rides the modern roads in a decidedly old-fashioned "traveling show" wagon, and their arrival upon every streetcorner is met with disinterest (at best) or overt physical rudeness (at worst), but of course (this being a Terry Gilliam film), it turns out the Dr. Parnassus (the wonderful Christopher Plummer) actually is the real deal.
Behind the sparkly cardboard mirror that resides on the Doctor's stage lies a stunningly odd world of gorgeous landscapes, bizarre creatures, and no shortage of plain old strangeness. Seems that poor old Dr. Parnassus is cursed to roam the world, spinning yarns for a modern culture that simply has no use for them. We're treated to various tales and explanations regarding lovely young Valentina (Lily Cole, ethereally gorgeous), the wide-eyed and ever-loyal Anton (Andrew Garfield, instantly lovable), the diminutive Percy (Verne Troyer, quite excellent), and the troubled-but-dangerous Tony (played quite strongly by the late Heath Ledger, with a little help from friends like Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell).
And then, just like a master storyteller would after all the set-up and character intros are out of the way, Gilliam gives us the hook: Seems that young Valentina will soon become the property of the devilish Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), if the good-hearted but befuddled (and frequently inebriated) Dr. Parnassus does not acquire five innocent souls before the girl's next birthday. And this is where the multi-faceted (and more than two-faced) Tony gets involved. His skills of showmanship help the Imagniarium to find a whole new class of clientele, but are the rich folks' souls really worth all that much?
And that's only the "real world" stuff! Just wait till you get a look inside that crazy mirror, movie fans, because it houses some of Gilliam's most fertile and amusing imaginings. (There are at least two sequences that look a little like old-school Python animations ... only in CGI and sort of in three dimensions!) The downbeat but still-hopeful "traveling show" story-line works as a perfect complement to the wildly fantastic tours inside the Imaginarium, and the ways in which Tony plays a vital role between Parnassus, Valentina, and Mr. Nick are both cleverly conceived and satisfyingly delivered.
(I was particularly impressed with how Gilliam managed to intermittently "replace" the late Heath Ledger with a few great actors. All I'll say is that the nature of the story -- and specifically the nature of Tony's character -- is what allows this experiment to work so well.)
Cooked up by Gilliam and longtime co-storyteller Charles McKeown, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is, to my eyes, a special sort of "comeback" for Terry Gilliam. The film bears all of his distinctly contorted trademarks: it's sweet yet sardonic, warm and bittersweet, wide-eyed, intelligent and playfully cynical. Plus it's so gorgeous to look at it almost damaged my eyes.