The prospect of watching The Imagiarium of Dr. Parnassus is a bittersweet one. On one hand, a Terry Gilliam film, while not all are great or even good, is always worth spending time with. On the other hand, this also happens to be the last film to feature Heath Ledger. Not only that, but it was in production when he tragically lost his life and the film had to undergo rewrites and other actors brought in to complete the performance. On the heels of Ledger's work on Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight, would this prove to bring up memories of his emerging talent or would it be a worthy swan song to his young career? Even more importantly will the movie be any good and will the character disruption cause any issues?
The good news is that the film is most definitely worth seeing, is wildly imaginative, and is one of the best cinematic mind-twisters to come along in some time. I feel no shame in saying that while I understood the movie, I also did not understand it. Terry Gilliam has crafted a visually stunning film whose through story is easy to follow, but there is a lot of nuance and elements that will take a few more viewings to understand.
We first meet Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) as his ancient carnival wagon pulls up outside of a bar. The stage lowers and his traveling sideshow troupe goes to work as drunken 20-somethings emerge from the bar. Parnassus' assistant, Anton (Andrew Garfield), emerges from behind the curtain to entice people to come and watch the show. He is soon joined by Parnassus' lovely daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), and the dwarf Percy (Verne Troyer). Unfortunately, their show is seen as little more than a joke by the drunks around them and the scene turns ugly as Parnassus and his troupe are forced to make a hasty exit.
Parnassus, it turns out, is a centuries-old mystic with the ability to control minds who runs a show that centers on a magical mirror. The mirror allows people to escape into their own imagination as their fantasies become manifest on the other side. When asked about the tricks he plays, Parnassus responds these are no tricks — everything they do is deadly serious.