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Film / The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

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"Can you put a price on your dreams?"

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a 2009 film directed and co-written by Terry Gilliam, starring Heath Ledger in his final film role (for real this time), along with Christopher Plummer as the eponymous Doctor.

Thousands of years ago, Doctor Parnassus made a wager with the Devil (Tom Waits) to see if he could save more souls through the Power of Imagination than the Devil could take through fear and corruption. In modern times, a now immortal Parnassus is owner of a traveling theater troupe, the Imaginarium. Its prized possession is a magic mirror that transports customers into a fantasy land shaped by the Doctor's imagination. Parnassus is proud and the Devil is persuasive, and the stakes keep getting higher until Parnussus bets the soul of his own daughter to be claimed on her 16th birthday. When the Devil comes to collect, the only hope to save Valentina lies in a mysterious rogue named Tony.


Also stars (deep breath) Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield, Verne Troyer, Paloma Faith, Gwendoline Christie, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell.

No relation to 2012's Imaginaerum, or to 2007's Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. Or to the series of fantasy novels collectively titled The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica, for that matter.

This film provides examples of:

  • Abominable Auditorium: The immortal Parnassus heads a traveling stage show that does avant-garde performances in London, but centuries of life have left him both alcoholic and apathetic, reducing the show to a shoddy laughingstock. It's subverted when we see the portable stage conceals a portal that leads audience members into Parnassus' mind and shows them their literal wildest dreams... but thanks to the influence of Mr Nick, the dreams can easily turn fatal if the participants can't resist their baser instincts, making it a complicated Villainous example.
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  • Affably Evil: The Devil has never been this likable. there's also Tony.
  • The Alcoholic: Dr. Parnassus is perpetually blotto.
  • All Women Are Prudes: Averted, in that Valentina is the one who brings the subject up.
  • Art Imitates Art: Many of the Imaginarium scenes were based on famous paintings. For example, the scene where Parnassus courts his wife, was based on Maxfield Parrish and Claude Monet, while Jude Law's scene was based on Grant Wood.
  • Asshole Victim: That drunk idiot from the first 10 minutes.
  • Author Avatar: Terry Gilliam reportedly based parts of the plot on his life, with Parnassus as his alter ego.
  • Award-Bait Song: "We Are The Children Of The World" complete with Lyrical Dissonance.
  • Bad Samaritan: Tony.
  • Bilingual Bonus: What does Tony say to a little Russian girl to (supposedly) calm her down (the scene then makes it to a charity poster)? 'Shut up, you little shit!'
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Tony.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Parnassus is abandoned to the wilds of the Imaginarium and Mr. Nick refuses to tell him where Valentina is. He manages to escape many years later and see that she's now happily married with her own family but decides not to make himself known to her and returns to his street puppetry.
  • Dastardly Dapper Derby/Waistcoat of Style: Mr. Nick.
  • The Cameo: Peter Stormare is the President! Look carefully.
  • Charity Motivation Song: Spoofed with "We Are the Children of the World".
  • Creative Closing Credits: The camera pushes into the paper puppet "set" at the end of the film.
  • Dark Messiah: Doctor Parnassus, a bitter alcoholic who puts unsuspecting people through a Journey to the Center of the Mind, which will end in either their enlightenment or their destruction.
  • Dead Artists Are Better: Explored a bit more thoroughly than they had originally intended.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Percy.
  • Deal with the Devil:
    • Parnassus makes bets with Mr. Nick, but the Devil (says he) enjoys the game more than the reward.
    • Tony accepted a loan from Russian mobsters, which ruined his reputation.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Anton at the film's beginning. Tony in the middle of the film. The ending makes it clear that the film's protagonist all along was Parnassus himself.
  • Devil, but No God: Unless the Wild Mass Guessing that Percy is God (or at least an angel) is true. Or perhaps the Devil is just God when he's drunk.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Anton.
  • Dr. Genericius: Dr. Parnassus has an "us" at the end, such Latin-sounding names are common for wizard or scientist characters.
  • Eldritch Location: Inside the Imaginarium, which doubles as a Lotus-Eater Machine.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: The Devil himself openly expresses disgust at Tony, who sold third world children's organs on the black market.
  • Extradimensional Emergency Exit: During Tony's first successful presentation of the Imaginarium, he finds himself being abruptly noticed by a gang of Russian mobsters that he's in debt to; cornered, Tony flings himself into the Imaginarium in a desperate attempt to evade his pursuers inside Doctor Parnassus's mind. Unfortunately, the mobsters follow him in. Hilarity Ensues.
  • Fan Disservice:
    • The Godiva scene is inter-cut with shots of Anton in drag, in a fat suit.
    • Also, much of the conversation between Tony and Anton in the next scene is hard to focus on, as Anton is still wearing the outfit, sans wig.
    • The policemen in skirts and fishnets performing a song and dance number: even the Russian mobsters were freaked.
  • Fanservice:
    • Lily Cole. Holy crap. Don't believe me? Look at the poster at the top of the page. Especially when she's dressed as Eve.
    • Also, you get Heath Ledger, Colin Farrell, Jude Law, and Johnny Depp in white suits and ponytails swanning about seducing middle-aged women and young girls.
  • The Fantastic Trope of Wonderous Titles
  • Friendly Enemy: The Devil, who seems to genuinely enjoy his chats with "Parny".
  • The Gambling Addict: Certainly Doctor Parnassus; depending on your interpretation, also possibly Mr. Nick.
  • Godiva Hair: Valentina, in one scene.
  • Good Smoking, Evil Smoking: Mr. Nick has a standard issue evil cigarette holder.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Anton, from the moment Tony wakes up, starts treating him like a leper because of how much more talented he is with the crowd and Valentina's attraction to him. He is so jealous he acts like a rapist to get a client Tony had already convinced and nearly destroys the show and gets them arrested for it, then uses The Reveal of Tony getting a loan from the Russians immediately as "ultimate proof" of how Tony "tainted" the show, even though Tony had no obligation helping them. Heck, he even tries stealing Tony's cell phone when it started ringing, for no good reason!
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Colin Farrell and Lily Cole.
  • Heaven's Devils: Implied. Mr. Nick certainly gives everyone a fair chance - sometimes even Moving the Goalposts in their favour, as if he's hoping to lose.
  • Hopeless Suitor: Anton, though not so hopeless.
  • Involuntary Shapeshifter: Tony invokes this whilst traversing between the mirror and the real world, but retains some Morphic Resonance with his suit.
  • Identical Grandson: Lily Cole plays both Valentina and Valentina's mother.
  • Improbable Infant Survival: Played with in the deleted sequence where the boy who wandered into the mirror has to make a choice of either going into Mr. Nick's shooting gallery or the mountain of pianos which shows millions of children being instructed to play.
  • Inconspicuous Immortal: The eponymous Doctor's immortality is the result of a wager with the Devil to prove that imagination can save more souls than the Devil can damn through corruption, but after finding exactly one moment of success followed by centuries of failure, Parnassus has become so disillusioned with the whole thing that he can barely give a damn about his mission; he just wants to live a normal life with his daughter Valentina, and can only go through the motions of running the Imaginarium on the few evenings when he isn't completely shitfaced. For good measure, his financial situation is so dire that he's ended up homeless more than once.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: The Devil (or is he?), but not Tony (or is he?).
  • Journey to the Center of the Mind
  • Killed Off for Real: Tony, killed off by some very real figments of his imagination.
  • Limited Wardrobe: Mr. Nick always wears the same three-piece suit, overcoat, and bowler hat, even in a flashback taking place a thousand or more years in the past.
  • Little People Are Surreal: This seems to be the main reason for Percy's existence.
  • Lotus-Eater Machine: The Imaginarium.
  • Louis Cypher: Mr. Nick.
  • Meaningful Echo: "Percy, what would I do without you?"
  • Mind Screw: If you don't read the summary, this movie will pass right over your head.
  • Moving the Goalposts: Mr. Nick is constantly doing this even when he's already winning, constantly altering the conditions of the bet (or else dismissing his own victories as "not counting") in order to keep the game going. When he has finally, unambiguously gotten Valentin's soul, he seems extremely disappointed ("Damn! I've won!") and immediately gives Parnassus a chance to save her.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Valentina. She plays the Rom Girl, the Magician's Assistant, the Wizard's Daughter who wants to run away... any of these workin' for ya?
  • Nice Hat: Mr. Nick likes to wear bowler hats from time to time.
  • The Nth Doctor: After Heath Ledger's death, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law were hired to replace him with the explanation that Tony can change shape when traveling beyond the mirror.
  • Oh, Crap!: Tony, just before he's hanged, when he realizes that Dr. Parnassus has his real flute (which he used as a breathing apparatus to save himself).
  • Overly Long Name: Percival St. Antoine della Touraine et Sansepolcro da Piemonte the Third.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: The bit where Tony physically changes as he enters the Imaginarium was thought up a while after Heath died. Although in the DVD commentary, Terry Gilliam claims that the plot of the movie - apart from this device - was not changed at all. They just gave Heath Ledger's lines to the Other Tonies.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Parnassus himself is over one thousand.
    • Percy is seen in the first chronological scene before Parnassus is given immortality, leading a viewer to realize that Percy has been around at least as long as the doctor.
  • Red Herring: The writing on Tony's forehead seems like it's going to come in handy during the ending; Mr Nick is even willing to let Valentina go free if Parnassus explains the symbols' meaning to him. The only purpose they serve in the story, though, is letting the mobsters recognize Tony in his Jude Law incarnation.
  • The Reveal: Tony is the head and founder of a global children's charity who sells their organs on the black market.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: Anton's suspicions towards Tony, although driven by his jealousy, turn out to be correct in the end.
  • Romantic False Lead
  • Rule of Three: According to Doctor Parnassus, there are three cardinal rules. The first is, "There is no such thing as Black Magic, only cheap tricks." He can't remember what the other two are, though.
  • Running Gag:
    Dr. Parnassus: What would I do without you Percy?
    Percy: Get a midget.
  • Scenery Gorn: When Mr. Nick manipulates the Imaginarium, the landscape is always barren, foreboding and, at times, downright disturbing.
  • Scenery Porn: The Movie.
  • Shout-Out: There are a lot of references to Egyptian culture within the film, most likely reflecting upon the theme of death throughout the movie. Also, in the mall, Valentina is sitting on a clam shell, naked, with a long wig to cover herself.
  • The Sixth Ranger: Tony, though there are only four members in the first place.
  • Stylistic Suck: Parnassus and Co. are terrible showmen.
  • Take That!:
    • Essentially the purpose of the little boy entering the Imaginarium. Gilliam is annoyed by how most games are about destroying things in some fashion, and the player isn't really creating anything.
    • Tony's self-deluding lies are based on Gilliam's perception of Tony Blair. Early in the film, he's also called George.
  • Tarot Motifs: Doctor Parnassus foretells Tony's appearance by drawing "The Hanged Man" from his tarot deck.
    • Tarot Troubles: The doctor's tarot reading also includes the Devil (obviously Mr. Nick), the Wheel of Fortune (his chancy bet with the devil), and the King of Cups (a wise man who cannot be trusted).
  • Theory of Narrative Causality: Dr. Parnassus follows a religious doctrine that more or less references this. Perhaps as a Shout-Out, the monastery where he was taught this doctrine looks like someone crossed a Buddhist temple with the Discworld. In the DVD commentary, Gilliam says it was Judaism-meets-Buddhism.
  • Trailers Always Lie: All the plot descriptions of this movie elsewhere sound as if Tony is The Atoner who finds redemption after going on a Journey to the Center of the Mind, which isn't quite true.
  • Trickster Archetype: Mr. Nick and Tony.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Dr. Parnassus, especially regarding his wife and his daughter. Tony very much is this when they go into his imagination.
  • Victory Is Boring: Mr. Nick discovers that he enjoys the game more than victory.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: In Tony's dream-world, the wheelchair-bound President of the Universe tells him "Well done, Tony!" Also inverted, in that Anton longs for Parnassus's approval... but the old man prefers Tony.
    • Valentina gets upset when her father commends Anton for going into the Imaginarium to rescue the boy Diego, whereas he'd scolded her earlier for entering the Imaginarium.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: Parnassus realizes this when his immortality contract only stated eternal life, not eternal youth. There was a similar stipulation in another Gilliam film with Heath Ledger in it, The Brothers Grimm.
    • Tony is able to convince a woman who hates growing older that good and virtuous people remain young and beautiful in the eyes of all who knew them.
  • Wipe That Smile Off Your Face: Mr. Nick does something like this to the storytelling monks in an attempt to prove that the universe will exist even without someone telling a story to keep it going.
  • Your Mind Makes It Real