Making the Grades
It’s a constant battle between good and evil in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, although it’s not always clear who is winning.
The immortal Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is the purveyor of a traveling sideshow housed in a lumbering, moving monstrosity that opens up to reveal a gaudy and tattered stage. He works alongside his diminutive, right-hand man Percy (Vern Troyer), Anton (Andrew Garfield), an urchin he salvaged from the streets, and his daughter Valentina (Lucy Cole). Together they invite audience members to cross into the world of their own imagination through a magical mirror. Once inside the fantastical realm, each individual is guided by the thoughts of the psychic and given the chance to choose between good and evil. Picking good results in happiness. Siding with the devil often brings about a more deadly outcome.
But despite the doctor’s apparent good intentions, he is hiding a dark secret from his maturing daughter. As a younger man, he sold his soul in exchange for everlasting life. Since then, he’s engaged in a continuous bout of wagers with the devilish Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), including one in which he promised to give up any offspring who reached the age of 16. With Valentina’s fateful birthday only days away, Dr. Parnassus is ready to make another bargain with the fiend in order to free his daughter from his impulsive pact. The latest gamble requires the foolhardy father to win over five souls in a predetermined time.
Meanwhile the troupe comes across a man dangling from a bridge with a rope around his neck. Cutting him loose, Percy, Anton and Valentina rescue the unlucky victim. And despite the two men’s better judgment, Valentina insists they load the injured party into the back of the wagon. When he regains consciousness, Tony (Heath Ledger) proves to be a capable con man in his own right and an asset to the struggling cast who are hungry for food as well as customers.
Unfortunately Heath Ledger’s unexpected death in January 2008, stalled this movie’s production. Put on hold for several months, filming did not resume until actors Jude Law, Colin Farrell and Johnny Depp agreed to play versions of Tony in the imaginary world. However, the need to rework the script (in order to incorporate the new actors) may have added to the random and wandering nature of this storyline.
While the special effects and sets in this production offer plenty of intriguing visual scenes, the film also includes several depictions of hangings, the use of satanic symbols and numerous scenes of smoking (including a teen). Some crude sexual content and the portrayal of a nude teen covered only by carefully placed hair are also portrayed. Walking a tightrope between the rewards of good and enticements of evil, the traveling show’s customers and cast experience perilous moments as well.
Yet as titillating as it may be to dance with the devil, the gambling Dr. Parnassus discovers that one ill-advised bet can beget an eternity of escalating antes, making this wild ride through the imagination an often dark and disturbing narrative.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
After passing through the magical mirror, characters in this film experience their own imaginations. What things would you experience if you were able to walk into your imagination?
What impact does lying have on the characters in this film? How does one untruth lead to the next? Why is it so difficult for Dr. Parnassus to refuse a new wager from Mr. Nick? What effect can compulsive gambling have on individuals and families?
During the film, a character swallows a hollow tube as a way of avoiding the deadly effects of a hanging. Why would this not work?