Especially considering the trauma and difficulties stemming from Heath Ledger’s death during production and the fact that Terry Gilliam hadn’t directed a good picture in more than a decade, the helmer has made a pretty good thing out of a very bad situation in “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.” Synthesizing elements from several of his previous pictures, including “Time Bandits,” “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” and “The Fisher King,” the often overreaching director addresses a mad hatter of a story with the expected visual panache and what is, for him, considerable discipline. With Ledger onscreen more than might have been expected, the film possesses strong curiosity value bolstered by generally lively action and excellent visual effects, making for good commercial prospects in most markets.
“Imaginarium” joined the short list of films interrupted by the death of a star when Ledger died in January 2008, after an initial stretch of shooting in London and before the box office smash of “The Dark Knight.” Gilliam struggled to figure out how to proceed before asking three other stars, Johnny Depp (who toplined for the director in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”), Jude Law and Colin Farrell, to step in to fill Ledger’s shoes.
Many Ledger fans certainly will turn out just to see his final performance. But it’s genuinely interesting to see how, under duress, Gilliam contrived to work the other actors into the role. In the finished picture, Ledger’s incarnation of Tony, a man rescued from death who provides a way for Doctor Parnassus to win a wager with the devil, occupies the London-set framing story, while his three successors play versions of the character in the CGI sequences set in fantastical other dimensions. It all comes off well, without terribly disruptive emotional-mental dislocations.
That said, Tony is not a demanding dramatic role, nor a particularly flamboyant one like the Joker, so this can’t legitimately be described as one Ledger’s most striking performances. Like most of the other actors here, he’s antic and frantic, dirty and sweaty, as the principals flail around trying to cope with their desperate straits.
At first, it seems Gilliam’s worst habits will get the better of him once again, as the early hectic action centers on a small group of traveling players who move about the seedier neighborhoods of modern London in a 19th-century-style carnival wagon that unfolds to allow the performers out to try to snare its few derelict customers.
At the center of the clan is Doctor Parnassus himself (Christopher Plummer, with a Lear-like countenance), who a thousand years ago made a pact with the devil for immortality. The downside to the bargain, however, as Parnassus is reminded when the devil comes to collect in the person of Mr. Nick (Tom Waits, forever the hipster), is that, when the doctor’s daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) turns 16, she becomes Satan’s property. Unfortunately, her birthday is imminent, so Parnassus makes another deal, which allows him to save his daughter if he can deliver five souls to his alternate world of the imagination.
This phantasmagorical domain exists as something like the anteroom to the doctor’s wagon. Entered through a mirrored partition, it can assume multiple forms, and great comforts await there as well as considerable perils. It’s another “Alice in Wonderland”-like playground for Gilliam, and while all the specific action may not be entirely coherent or exciting, it’s always visually stimulating and allows the three incarnations of Tony to host assorted guests.
In a morbid touch, Tony is first seen hanging from a noose suspended from a London bridge and presumed dead. Once resurrected, the young man, who says “mate” a lot, joins Parnassus’ small band, which, in addition to his kewpie doll-like daughter, consists of the over-avid Anton (Andrew Garfield), who’s smitten with Valentina, and midget Percy (Verne Troyer). Seeing little upside among the drunks and homeless who generally witness and sometimes disrupt the troupe’s appearances, Tony suggests a modernizing makeover and a move to snazzier environs.
A lot of the stage business consists of pratfalls and chaotic behavior, which quickly become overbearing, and the plot mechanics are scarcely more engaging. Fortunately, the central conception is sturdy enough to bear Gilliam’s sporadic excesses, which in any case are better focused than is sometimes the case with him. Worst are the persistent and ineffectual flailings of Anton, a character poorly conceived in hapless 19th-century romantic mode.
It’s 66 minutes into the picture when Depp first appears, and you have to look twice to make sure it’s him, so closely has his pulled-back hair, moustache and beard been tailored to match Ledger’s. At one point, Depp’s Tony conducts a middle-aged woman to the river of immortality and says that there she can join the likes of Valentino, James Dean and Princess Di among those who never got old, which serves to ease Ledger’s unspoken admission to that group.
Ledger reappears whenever the action returns to modern London, but the fact that Tony is always dressed in a white suit makes him instantly identifiable when Law takes over to deal with some Russian gangsters. Last and very much the best of the three new Tonys is Farrell, who brings great zest to Tony’s efforts to become the crucial fifth soul who will save Valentina.
Pic’s second half is resplendent with ever-changing CGI backdrops for the imaginary world the doctor has created with his gift. “Original designers and art directors” Dave Warren and Gilliam no doubt played a dominant role in conceiving the film’s look, which is ornate without being a riot of detail, but production designer Anastasia Masaro, visual effects supervisors John Paul Docherty and Richard Bain and costume designer Monique Prudhomme certainly made major contributions as well. Other production values are strong across the board.
Plummer enacts the oldest man in the world with verve, and Troyer, Waits and Cole nicely hold necessarily caricatured work in check.
Pic is dedicated to the memories of not only Ledger but producer William Vince, who also died during production.