London, the 21st century, and a ragtag show troupe is trying to enlighten people to the power of the imagination. They aren't doing well, and Doctor Parnassus himself is blighted by a seriously bad gambling habit. Into their lives comes the amnesiac Tony, who may just turn their fortunes around - if he can be trusted...
'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus' can be reviewed in one simple phrase: it's a Terry Gilliam film. In translation, it's thoroughly surreal, and is seemingly more concerned with wild flights of fancy than such boring things as plot coherence.
That's actually a little unfair. For the majority of the film, the plot does make sense, within it's own bizarre terms. It's just the final third or so where everything goes insane, and you're left wondering "So, that character's dead, that one's in Hell... or maybe not... And that character's done that because... Why? What?" I went to see this with a friend, and we spent nearly an hour afterwards discussing the plot, and what precisely had happened, and whether some characters had survived or died. It was more than a little confusing. That's before you factor in the fact that Tony is played by four different actors, owing to Ledger's untimely death.
However, the vast majority of the film is, I'm happy to say, really rather good. Most praise must go to the cast, who are uniformly excellent. The standouts, for me, were Christopher Plummer and Tom Waits, as Parnassus and the Devil respectively. Plummer manages the nifty trick of being pitiable, loveable, and rather unpleasant, often in the same scene, while Waits is possibly the sleaziest interpretation of Lucifer I've ever seen.
Ledger's performance will likely attract the most attention, due to it being his final role, but in reality, he isn't the focus of the film, just one of a group. It's a fine performance - I've never seen him do a bad one - but it won't replace his career defining roles in 'Brokeback Mountain' and 'The Dark Knight'. On the subject, his three replacements - Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell - do well. Depp and Law, particuarly, capture the spirit of Ledger's performance superbly, while still making their own mark. Farrell loses some of Ledger's tone, but has a longer sequence than Depp or Law, so it balances out; it also helps that he's portraying a very different side of Tony (the real Tony?), so he doesn't need to be as similar as Depp or Law do. It's canny casting by Gilliam, and he is to be applauded for managing to fill the role in a way that makes sense while also managing to be respectable.
Equally worthy of comment are Lily Cole, as Parnassus' daughter Valentina, and Andrew Garfield as Anton, an actor in the Imaginarium, and the man in love with Valentina. Both relative unknowns (Cole is, primarily, a model), they deliver sensitive performances; Garfield's Anton can occasionally seem petulant and unlikeable, which seems strange in one of our heroes and romantic leads, but as a young man in love with a woman who seems to barely notice him, it works rather well. Verne Troyer, as the final member of the troupe, steals most of his scenes, and gets most of the best lines - he's much more than Mini-Me here.
However, it is the scenes inside the Imaginarium itself that both make and break the film. For the first two acts, they are wondeful, magnificent playgrounds that practically bleed magic and gleeful flights of fancy, and surreal inventiveness - imagine the storyboards Gilliam created for Monty Python, but done with a Hollywood budget and CGI company, and you're probably about halfway there. However, by the time Farrell gets his crack at the Imaginarium, the plot has fully kicked in, and life is no longer quite so safe and fun. This leads to much less imagination, before leaking into an overload of surrealism that brings about the utter derailment of sense. It is at this point that you lose track of which characters are alive or dead, in hell or out, trustworthy or not, and the film never really recovers it's balance, despite largely consisting of Plummer's fine performance.
In defence, anyone who knows anything about Gilliam's films will not be surprised - see 'Brazil', or 'Time Bandits', for evidence. And you could argue that the film isn't as concerned with the plot as it is with sending a message of support for the importance of imagination: "Without stories, we wouldn't be here." Nevertheless, if you prefer your films to be fairly cut and dried, then this perhaps isn't for you, but you'll be missing out. If you don't mind something a little more abstract, then go for it. You may be puzzled, but I can guarentee you'll enjoy it.