The film opens with the titular doctor (Christopher Plummer) roaming the back streets of rundown sections of London with his traveling troupeóhis daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole); the dwarf, Percy (Verne Troyer); and the barker, Anton (Andrew Garfield), who pines for Valentinaóstopping in parking lots and in front of pubs, unfolding the stage and playing shows to indifferent crowds of passersby.
The show consists of the rest of the troupe performing desperately for a crowd of drunken reprobates while the doctor sits inert on a stool in a trance. The imaginarium allows people to step through a mirror into the depths of their own imagination, where they can find candy-colored vistas, vast spooky forests or fields of giant high-heeled shoes (as one woman imagines).
The doctor is old (very old, as it turns out), and millennia ago, as a relatively young monk, he made a deal with the devil, here called Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), that granted him immortality and the rest of his powers. The only catch is that, should he reproduce, the child will belong to Mr. Nick at age 16. When he had Valentina, the doctor must have been very chagrined.
Of course, both the doctor and Mr. Nick are always up for another wager, and as the doctor tries to save Valentina, he and the troupe come across a man (Heath Ledger) hanging from a bridge. The man is named Tony, and at first he has amnesia, but soon discovers his innate skills at talking people out of their valuables. Tony joins the show as ringmaster and suggests updates to the show to make it more modern and profitable.
Gilliam co-wrote the screenplay with Charles McKeown, with whom he also wrote Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. The two make Dr. Parnassus into a handy stand-in for Gilliam himself, a relic whose magical storytelling gifts and old-fashioned sensibilities are met with indifference by modern people. Still, they also take care to paint Parnassus as a fool who brings ruin on himself and canít help making ill-advised wagers with the devil. Gilliamís problems getting films made arenít entirely due to outside circumstances, after all.
Being a work from a filmmaker late in his career, the script is a little more melancholy than one might think it would be, with odd, sad little moments that move the film away from the direction one assumes it might go, and suggests that all morality is a game, and one that may be fixed.
The film on the whole is an interesting exploration of the power of storytelling (which literally makes the world go around, according to the film), and the ability of stories and the imagination to transport and transform people, even if they fancy themselves to be too smart or too hip to be affected.
Despite often being thematically engaging, the film never seems to carry as much weight as it should, with its devils and immortality and souls in the balance. Gilliamís films are often best viewed as fantasylands instead of strict linear narratives, but this filmís script becomes almost nonsensical towards its end, and at its worst the film can feel like little more than a vehicle for the fantasy sequences.
But, oh, how magical those sequences can be. Gilliam created some truly amazing sequences here, including the entire sequence set in the bizarre, mountainous monastery where Dr. Parnassus spent his early years, to the sight of the ramshackle, folded-up imaginarium stage being pulled by horses through modern-day London. This is Gilliamís first film to embrace CGI fully, instead of the homemade look that his effects are known for, but he isnít yet fully adept at using the computer graphics. The CGI allows Gilliamís imagination to run wild and create some dazzling imagery, but itís interesting that the most amazing moments in the film tend to be the ones that feel more handmade.
The film makes a nice final showcase for Ledger, heavily featuring his natural charisma and the oily charm necessary for his con man character, but the role doesnít really push him. His performance, like the rest of the film, is a lark, but carries little weight. Still, Ledger and the rest of the cast are quite entertaining. Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell are all deputized to complete the film, playing alternate versions of Ledgerís character during different trips into the imaginarium, and all three manage to evoke Ledger while adding their own spin onto the role. Waitsí devilish Mr. Nick is a treat, with his low, insinuating croak of a voice and his way of sidling into a scene (when heís not appearing in a puff of smoke). Former runway model Cole (a long-limbed, heart-faced beauty who is almost a special effect by herself) acquits herself well amidst all these heavyweights. And Plummer himself is wonderful as always, a sort of mixture of King Lear and the fool, shambling about the wilderness in robes and a beard and cursing himself for his misdeeds.
Uneven as it might be, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is amazing at times, full of lovely performances and visual wonders that, for some moviegoers, will overwhelm the scriptís occasional deficiencies and prove that even a minor work from Gilliam can be truly dazzling.