As ancient and peculiar as the galleon-like caravan he and his companions ramble around 21st-century London in, Dr. Parnassus (Shakespearean pro Christopher Plummer) has more than a bit of a past, and a penchant for upping the stakes with Satan. When not parked in a litter-strewn lot, Parnassus and posse -- feisty friend Percy (Verne Troyer), his ripe-as-a-peach daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), and her love-struck cohort Anton (Andrew Garfield) -- take their traveling spectacle to hoodlum-infested amusement parks and other sketchy locales. From an antiquated stage they entice any audience in earshot to step into Parnassus' Imaginarium. Some nights Anton poses as a gold-faced Hermes or Valentina poses as Marie Antoinette while Parnassus, a meditating mystic with red-painted pate and wispy white beard, silently levitates. Those who enter the metaphysical funhouse discover a dream/nightmare wonderland of their own and Parnassus' mind's making, where sooner or later they must choose between the path of Parnassus, or Mr. Nick.
Mr. Nick is Beelzebub, played charismatically and in perfectly devilish pitch by music legend Tom Waits. Black bowler half-cocked, puffing on a bluebell-shaped pipe or elongated cigarettes, seemingly as harmless as a hobo, as chummy as a bartender -- it's no wonder he's able to woo Parnassus into costly contests and agreements, like the deal he made to trade his daughter to Nick (at the age of 16) for the gift of youth that allowed him to court her mother. When the troupe finds Tony (Heath Ledger), half-dead, hung from a bridge, Parnassus thinks him the trump card that could save Valentina. A difficult man to root for, Dr. Parnassus walks a fine line between visionary and delusional drunk.
Without knowing Gilliam's original vision and any behind-the-scenes changes made, it's difficult to measure the impact Heath Ledger's death had on the movie. Nearly 30 minutes pass before he appears on-screen and once he joins the Parnassus production his part isn't entirely clear. He vanishes for significant stretches, and when present Ledger's performance isn't a fitting finale for his tremendous talent. Imaginarium sequences where Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell trade off as a transformed Tony do, however, work well -- especially Depp's Don Juan-reminiscent incarnation.
Inside the Imaginarium, the fantasy's limitless, along with the potential for stunning CGI and psychedelic visuals. And though intriguingly trippy Monty Python-esque images abound, they don't always provide the pop and enchantment you expect and crave in a tale as whimsical as this. Whether grungy, dimly lit London or the Imaginarium, Gilliam's landscapes often seem lackluster, their enthusiasm dulled. On the other hand, a flashback to Parnassus as a monk meeting the devil in a snowy mountain sanctuary braced by colossal stone elephants is the stuff that mesmerizes an audience.
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is one of those movies that, despite spectacular elements, doesn't add up to a spectacular film. It's a murky moral tale of misdirection with storylines that frequently lose meaning or abruptly dead-end. It lacks the endearing charm of Baron Munchausen, or the exoticness of Brazil. It's the sort of movie you truly want to love, one that might compel a viewer to watch again if only to experience the magic that they're sure should be there based on its cinematic components. Or in this case, wish that Gilliam had simply remade the movie without Ledger (if that's what it took), instead of cobbling together a requiem that does neither of them justice.