Credit, in some form, has to be given to Terry Gilliam for actually getting his much anticipated The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus completed. Anticipated, not necessarily because the world needed another Time Bandits or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen type movie but because Heath Ledger, the film’s lead died halfway through filming.
I’m not sure that is the reason the movie is so disjointed, however, but I’m sure it didn’t help out the situation any.
And here is the situation. Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) eons ago made a deal with the devil (Tom Waits). He gets immortality, Satan gets his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) when she turns the tender age of 16. As her birthday nears, the devil in all his mischievous and conniving ways tenders another deal to Parnassus — whomever gets five souls first in two days is awarded the rights to Valentina’s soul. So armed with his travelling Imaginarium and trusted devotees Percy (Verne Troyer), Anton (Andrew Garfield) and Valentina, he sets off to win his daughter back.
Enter Tony (Heath Ledger), a man saved from a hanging by the troupe. He’s outgoing and handsome and under his care the dilapidated sideshow act gets a well needed facelift. Souls trickle in. Satan isn’t happy. Tony’s past comes a knockin’ and to escape it, he thrusts himself into the mirror that is the gateway to fantasyland. In this world, the inventive and bizarre mind of Gilliam takes root. But just like the fanciful animations from his Monty Python days, the elements of Gilliam’s fantasy world are hit and miss. That being said, the scenes within are the most entertaining and eventful of the movie — the time leading up to these excursions can be a tad monotonous and confusing.
A lot has been said about how good Ledger’s final performance would be in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus since his immersion into the Joker’s skin in The Dark Knight was so frightfully complete. Well, I’m here to report, to the chagrin of many Ledger fans, that there isn’t anything special to take note of. His character is boisterous and semi-interesting, but I’m certain this characterization wouldn’t have been his choice for his final bow. The work by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to fill in for Ledger is commendable too — each bring their own flair as Tony when in the Imaginarium — but their scenes feel like the add-ins and rewrites to the film that they are; something is missing to congeal them to the whole.
Even with those scenes omitted and/or having the blessing of Ledger acting throughout the entire film, I get a distinct feeling The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus would have ended up in roughly the same position — halfway decent. Gilliam has given us an imaginative film that, for the most part, is easily forgotten. Too bad Ledger’s last wasn’t his finest.