Monday, January 25, 2010

Movie Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is an enjoyable experience wrapped in a mediocre film.  Enough ideas work to make it worth seeing, but it's far from a spectacular movie.

There is little question this would be a far superior film if not for the computer effects.  Gilliam is a master when it comes to turning reality into fantasy, but computers make the whole thing feel a touch too easy.  The lack of limitation cheapens the effect and, in the end, we're left with vast fantasy environments that often feel no more inspired than your average children's film.  The best of these sequences never approaches the brilliance and awe embedded in a single frame of Henson's Labyrinth.

The scenes taking place in the carriage and on the stage itself are the most fun.  While the over-produced fantasy scenes come off as cheesy, the absurdity of the traveling troop of actors is brilliantly surreal and fascinating.  The strange and impossible stage, decorated in antiquated costumes and pulled by a team of horses through modern-day London, is a joy to watch.  And the characters, for their faults, are intriguing.  Among other things, this movie offers one of the most enjoyable portrayals of the devil we've seen in a while.

But, for all the lip-service paid to the importance of storytelling, the whole piece never comes together into anything remotely coherent.  What's missing is an answer to the question, "Why?"  Parnassus is driven to see the world's imagination set free, though he himself can't imagine his daughter as free herself.  Why?  It may be intriguing as a premise, but, while the consequences drive the plot, this is never really explored.  Motivation is all but ignored throughout the movie, as are explanations.

Perhaps Gilliam left such things unanswered intentionally, hoping the loose ends would force us to imagine explanations of our own.  An idealistic notion, but in reality it just makes the movie feel underdeveloped.  At the very least, we need to understand the complexities for Mr. Nick's relationship to Parnassus.  The seeds of brilliance were evident, but they never grew into anything.

We mentioned Labyrinth earlier, and we'll return to it now.  If Jim Henson's classic fairytale is a five star production, we feel Gilliam's ode to the imagination worthy of two and three-fourths.  It's a fine enough way to spend an afternoon at the theater, but don't expect this to inspire you.

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