The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2006)

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

“You can’t stop stories being told.”

The Scoop: 2009 PG-13, directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Waits

Tagline: N/A

Summary Capsule: The owner of a traveling show that explores the imagination makes bets with Old Scratch and takes in an amnesiac stranger.


Eunice’s rating: “Eunice, it is one of your weird movies, but… it’s not like your other weird movies. Ya know?”

Eunice’s review: Along with being one of the Monty Python boys, Terry Gilliam is known for making movies that are more than a little weird, but in a creative and totally not pretentious way.

The Imaginarium is a traveling sideshow with mystic Doctor Parnassus, his daughter Valentina, barker Anton, and dwarf Percy. They offer people a peek into their imaginations and a look at their true selves for just the price of a ticket. Unfortunately, the show is outdated and shabby, the Doc can’t hold his liquor, Valentina dreams of running away from their tiny circus, Anton has painfully unrequited love for Valentina, and Percy is always right, but no one ever listens to him. Oh, and the Imaginarium? It can send you to Hell based on the choices you make while inside.

See, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a Faustian tale where in exchange for immortality/mortality/immortality (it’s a long story) and the powers that allow him to run the Imaginarium, Parnassus agreed to give the Devil — AKA Mr. Nick — any children he might have when they turn sixteen. Erm, Valentina is three days away from her sweet sixteen. So yeah he’s got himself some troubles.

In the middle of all this comes Tony, a stranger that the troupe finds hanging by a noose under a bridge with his hands tied behind his back and strange symbols on his forehead. Claiming to have no memory, he goes all Scaramouche and joins them appearing to be incredibly helpful and useful. But are appearances deceiving? When he goes into the Imaginarium, we see his face changes radically and his imaginations reflect the same.

TIoDP returns to the ideas of Gilliam’s unofficial “Trilogy of Imagination” by exploring the imagination. While more structured and cohesive a movie than the ones in that trilogy — linear even, comparatively speaking — it looks at the importance of the imagination, of sharing it with other people through stories, and how it reflects the soul of its owner. Mixed in are the themes of choice, desire, contentment, purity, honesty, intent, immortality, regret, and death as a positive.

It also has a dark and weary edge about it and there’s less humor than Gilliam’s previous movies. At one point Parnassus says Mr. Nick tricked him, “He knew that times would change, and that, one day, no one would want my stories.” Now I haven’t listened to the commentary track yet, but I feel like this was probably a very personal movie for Terry Gilliam. The best I can explain it is that, while it ends on a semi-hopeful note, even through the whimsy there’s something sad and tired playing in the background the whole time.

I don’t want to get too far into it, but since it does have an effect on the final product of the movie… along with the trademark strange factor, Gilliam movies have a tendency to have problems behind the camera, and TIoDP is no exception. There’s no escaping that the thing most people are going to remember about TIoDP is that it’s Heath Ledger’s last movie and that he died in the middle of production after location shooting, but before CGI for the scenes inside of the Imaginarium could be filmed. While Depp, Law, and Farrell try their best as “Imaginarium Tonys 1,2,3”, it’s just almost too much of a disconnect. I don’t want to give too much away for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but I think Depp was the only one who captured the same duplicity in the character that Ledger was playing. It’s a shame because story wise the rewrites work.

This was an incredibly hard review to write, and an even harder come up with an end to. So at the end of the day is it definitely worth watching? Yes, very much so. It’s not perfect, it can be hard to follow sometimes, and parts of the ending are confusing. But it is very creative and I always like a good story.

It’s one of my weird movies, but not like my other weird movies.

Classic Python-esque moment


  • I love the fact that Parnassus calls Valentina “Scruffy”!
  • So… is she dancing with the Devil in the pale moon light? *wah wah wah*
  • So… what did Mr. Nick want all along? Discuss.
  • I may be missing something being an American, but Anton is clearly holding The Sun when Tony says The Mirror.
  • The first film that Terry Gilliam storyboarded himself since The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
  • Per Gilliam usual, many CGI scenes are based on paintings or painter’s styles
  • Tony’s hanging under the bridge is an homage to Vatican banker Roberto Calvi.
  • Along with Ledger, the film’s dedicated to producer William Vince who died of cancer a week after filming. Also, Gilliam cracked a vertebra in a car accident during post production.
  • Depp, Farrell, and Law gave their money from the film to Ledger’s daughter.

Groovy Quotes

Policeman: What do you think you’re playing at?
Doctor Parnassus: “Playing?” Oh, no, no, no. We don’t play. What we do is deadly serious.

Anton: Why did I say “scrumptious?” Beautiful, intelligent, sweet… “Scrumptious” – idiot!

Doctor Parnassus: Somewhere in this world, right now, someone else is telling a story. A different story. A saga, a romance, a tale of unforeseen death, it doesn’t matter. That’s why we’re still here: You can’t stop stories being told.

Percy: If he’s hanging by his neck he’s already got a rope.

Doctor Parnassus: Let’s get the hell out of here before the fuzz shows up!

Repeated lines:
What would I do without you?
Get a midget.

Anton: He don’t want to rule the world. He wants the world to rule itself.

Tony: Do you dream? Or should I say, can you put a price on your dreams?

Tony: Don’t shoot the messenger.

Doctor Parnassus: There are three cardinal rules, Mr. Nick: One, “There is no black magic, only cheap tricks.” And… I forget the others.

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  1. Great review, Eunice. Thank you for your insight, and reminding me that I’d forgotten all about this movie somehow.

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