Terry Gilliam has always been the kind of director who takes his audiences to new worlds, but that's never been quite so literal as it is in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, a shambling, lovable mess of a movie that never manages to keep its boundless imagination in check. Taking place in a handful of dream worlds and in a traveling magic show that seems out of place in our own, the movie is energetic and at times riveting, but never as meaningful as it thinks it is, perhaps because it's nearly impossible to understand. Fans of Gilliam's wry, overflowing style may be enchanted, but it's a hard sell for anyone who likes a little logic with their magic.
Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer, looking pretty Gandalf-esque) is many thousands of years old and the ringmaster of an old-timey traveling magic show, where paying customers can walk through the magic mirror and into a world entirely of their wildest imaginations. The rickety wagon and sparkly costumes are elegant but old-fashioned relics, largely ignored by the modern-day London public they're performing for and resented by the performers themselves. Parnassus's daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) longs for some life of her own, while fellow performer Anton (Andrew Garfield) wants Valencia to pay him any attention.
Enter Tony (Heath Ledger, at first), a London businessman and crook on the run from Russian mobsters who is happy to take up residence as the lead showman in the Parnassus crew. Also hovering on the fringes is the Devil himself (Tom Waits, perfectly cast), who gave Parnassus his immortality in exchange for Valentina's soul, and has finally turned up to receive his prize. Tony's presence results in newfound success for the Imaginarium, but as all the performers start to spend more time behind the magic mirror and the Devil remains in hot pursuit, things start to get as complicated as even the wildest imagination.
Everyone knows by now that Ledger died halfway through filming of Parnassus, and while the presence of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to replace him in the scenes behind the mirror make the convoluted second half of the film even more confusing, it's remarkable how well it works. Depp first appears when Tony is escorting a middle-aged woman through the mirror, and it's perfectly logical that her imagination would involve a smoldering Johnny Depp and a romantic boat cruise. Law appears only briefly, in a hallucinogenic scene involving sky-high ladders, but Farrell is handed the film's denouement, in which Tony must pay for his many crimes and reckon with those who have come to love him. Farrell handles the scenes ably, but it's hard not to wish that Ledger could have seen them through.
Many people will see Parnassus because it was Ledger's last performance, but despite the good work he was doing in creating Tony, it is clear he was only half-finished. Working with Gilliam for the second time after The Brothers Grimm, Ledger is clearly at home in the wild world Gilliam was creating, and it's easy to imagine many fruitful decades of collaboration between them to come. While Parnassus isn't an embarrassment by any means, it's only the beginning of what the two were capable of together.
And even though Parnassus slips too often into visual excess, some of its individual images-- the giant ladders, the collapse of the world near the end-- are so striking and wonderful that it seems that CGi exists just to give Terry Gilliam a larger playground. The master of large-scale whimsy clearly has great things left to say, even if a lack of editing can bury the message behind an excess of images and jokes. It can be challenging and infuriating, but also an immense pleasure to spend some time in his world.