This is the final film that Heath Ledger was working when he died of a drug overdose in January 2008. Following up his role as the Joker in The Dark Knight, the role that would earn Ledger his second Oscar nomination and posthumous win, his character here of Tony would be almost as playful and sinister.
A British traveling circus show, known as the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, rescues Tony who is found hanging by rope under a bridge. Tony seemingly has no memory of whom he is or how he came to be hanging, but he becomes a part of the circus show, much to some people's chagrins.
The circus or carnival show consists of four people. Christopher Plummer, after voicing characters in the recent animated films Up and 9, brings another fun, animated quality as the mystical and unkempt monk called Parnassus. New actress, Lily Cole is Parnassus' daughter, Valentina, a beauty to woo the crowds. Verne Troyer of Austin Powers-fame is Percy, the dwarf, stagehand and driver, and, Andrew Garfield (Lions for Lambs and Boy A) is Anton, a kind of ringmaster, clown, and amateur magician, rolled into one.
What Parnassus does is go into a trance, a deep monk meditation that activates the Imaginarium. When someone steps through a threshold on stage that looks like a mirror, while Parnassus is in that trance, he or she enters into Parnassus' mind, a kind of wonderland that's shaped by the imaginations of the person entering.
Director Terry Gilliam uses the most visual effects by way of CGI that I've seen him incorporate into a film. The brief, fantasy sequences that Gilliam constructs while people are inside the Imaginarium are spectacular. The art direction is sweet, cinematic confection that at times made me feel like I was in a Lewis Carroll story.
As Tony ingratiates himself into the circus troupe, he catches wind of a devilish plot that has Parnassus ensnared. Years ago, Parnassus made a Faustian deal with Mr. Nick, played by actor and musician Tom Waits. Nick gave Paranssus immortality, but at a price. That price is Parnassus' first-born child when that child reaches 16 years of age.
Valentina is in fact that child and her 16th birthday is days away. Of course, Parnassus doesn't want to give up Valentina. To save his daughter, Nick challenges Parnassus to a contest. Parnassus must bring people into the Imaginarium. Once there, Nick will offer them a choice. If five of those people take Nick's choice, Parnassus loses his daughter. But, if Parnassus can instead get five people not to take Nick's offer, and thus save their souls, Parnassus can keep his daughter.
Tony decides to help Parnassus and he becomes a less timid and anxious, white rabbit. He is able to drum up business for Parnassus' fledgling circus show. Tony re-designs the stage, adds some new costumes, and jazzes up the ringmaster's pitch to the crowds.
At times, it requires Tony to enter the Imaginarium himself. Because Ledger died before he had a chance to film the scenes where Tony is inside the Imaginarium, a round robin of actors, including Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell substitute. Each actor basically does one scene. First is Depp, who as Tony is very seductive. The second is Law who is very silly. Finally, there's Farrell who's very serious, and somewhat sinister.
These three scenes are like dabs of sugar on Gilliam's brewing tea, which includes some very comical interactions between Ledger and the troupe, as well as very buoyant camerawork in contrast to the dark, Victorian wardrobe and state of mind, maintained by Parnassus versus the stark, modern, depressing reality he keeps at bay.
Sadly, the ending is rather a mess. Gilliam doesn't devote enough time into exposing Tony's backstory or really showing the slight romance between Tony and Valentina. Ledger is so charming and so great an actor that the audience wants to connect with him, but without that backstory or romance, the audience can't feel the weight of Tony's final choice.
If anything, the Imaginarium sequences are too short. The audience would love to spend more time in them, but Gilliam doen't feel the need to expand those scenes.
Three Stars out of Five
Rated PG-13 for violent images, sensuality, language and smoking
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 2 mins.