Terry Gilliam does not make mainstream movies. They are always quirky and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is no exception. Part of the strangeness this time is that (as anyone who has not been living in an underground lair is aware) Heath Ledger died while they were shooting and they had to come up with a way to finish it without him. So for three fantasy sequences in the movie (that somehow make perfect sense anyway), the character Tony meant to be portrayed by HL is played instead by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell — not too shabby as stand-ins, if you ask me.
And it is an odd little film. Set in modern day London, Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), a young stagehand Anton and a dwarf named Percy (Verne Troyer) perform in a traveling show where the Doctor has the ability to allow people to physically enter their own fantasies through a mirror on the stage. Doctor Parnassus has been around for centuries playing betting games with the Devil (Tom Waites), and unfortunately he made one deal that would give his first born, Valentina, to the Devil on her 16th birthday which happens to be is just days away unless he can find a way out of it. Enter Tony (Heath Ledger), found hanging from a bridge. Once revived, he claims to have amnesia, but proves himself invaluable to the bedraggled little troupe when he brings in audiences and money. And that’s when the Devil offers a new wager to Parnassus that may save Valentina. This is also where the fantasy sequences with our trio of cute Tony stand-ins come up.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a very imaginative movie as Terry Gilliam’s always are. Brazil is still one of my favorites and I think the Monty Python movies are brilliant. I’m not sure where I’d rank this one in the Gilliam canon, but you cannot help but be entertained by such creative choices and absurd notions as he comes up with and brings to celluloid life. The fantasy sequences are inspired, both visually and conceptually. And Tom Waites as the Devil, Mr. Nick, in a bowler hat is perfect. All the actors are wonderful and the plot though a bit convoluted is entirely engaging. Having said that, I think appreciating Gilliam movies means going along for a mind-altering ride. I’m always up for that, but it may not be a movie for everyone.