Who doesn't occasional dream of running away to join a circus? The lead females of two whimsical films of the last ten years, want exactly the opposite – feeling trapped by the lives they are forced to lead in small traveling family circuses, Helena Campbell, in MirrorMask (2005) and Valentina in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) want nothing more than to run off and join the normal world.
Taking the circus and its themes of possibility, magic, and mystery as a base, both films choose to extrapolate on dreams, identities, and imagination, but visually, take very different directions. Both films are strikingly beautiful and marvelously successful in creating stunning imaginary realms – but you would expect nothing less from the creative brains behind them. MirrorMask is the brain child of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, (a team that has worked together several times in crafting wacky and inventive children's books,) and made possible by the Jim Henson workshop, while The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeownproduction.
MirrorMask choses a steampunk fantasy, with sepia tones and gear-based monsters. The film, like much of McKean's work, looks like a collage, which lends itself wonderfully to the notions of how a subconscious breaks apart the world and rearranges it in dreams or fantasy. Likewise, through the cut and paste landscape that Helena travels, the familiar becomes strange – objects we thought we knew get repurposed. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus uses are broader pallet, choosing extremes of color and pattern, as well as fantastical architecture. Though both films draw heavily on themes of light versus darkness, the worlds inside the imaginarium explode (sometimes literally) with the contrast. The pleasant dreams play out in near neons and rainbows of pastels, while dark temptations are saturated with deep reds and blacks. Even the tinny props of Parnassus's real world stage are rich with visual detail.
Despite their common themes and settings, the two movies tell different archetypal stories. MirrorMask, using Helena as the protagonist, becomes a liminal fantasy journey to adulthood – an Alice in Wonderland tale. The movie was influenced by Jim Henson's Labyrinth, the splitting and doubling found in many fairy tales, and some story elements that will sound familiar to anyone who knows Gaiman's Coraline, published in 2002. Helena, wandering in a dream-like state, finds herself in a world of two kingdoms, one of light and one of shadow, where the balance has been thrown off – and only she, a girl who looks just like the missing Princess of Shadow, can fix it. She travels with a native companion and overcomes trials, as per the Campbellian pattern, leading to confrontation and reconciliation with her dream-mother figure, solving of the riddle, and a return as a more complete person.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus by contrast is a story about dealing with the devil. By focuses on Doctor Parnassus rather than his daughter, Gilliam tells a story of morality and temptations, about struggling with consequence rather than circumstance. Gilliam describes the character of Parnassus (played by Christopher Plummer) as almost autobiographical – an old man who long ago worked as a monk dedicated to sustaining the world by telling stories. Tempted away by the devil (a Mr. Nick, played by Tom Waits), he earns his immortality by proving that people cared more about imagination and stories than petty fancies by winning over souls in his imaginarium, a mirror land that turns imagination into landscape. Years later, he makes another deal – his youth returned for his first born – a debt that is coming due as the movie opens. He, his daughter, and his small traveling band take the imaginarium around the cruder parts of London, trying to win over souls for imagination. When Parnassus makes another deal to try to save his daughter, the film becomes a desperate race to see who can win 5 the fastest. Ultimately Doctor Parnassus is only freed from the cycle of suffering when he resists the temptation to make another deal with Mr. Nick. By contrast with MirrorMask this choice mask a resignation of the end of his lifetime, rather than it's beginning.
A final interesting note: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was Heath Ledger's final film. He died 1/3 through the filming of it. As a result, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law were cast to replace him in the scenes inside the imaginarium, and the script was altered slightly to reflect the characters awareness that his appearance altered in response to his own or other people's imagination.