A flight of fantastical imagination has Terry Gilliam in his surreal, whimsical element.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus stars the late Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Lily Cole, and Andrew Garfield, and recalls the ill-fated director's better pictures, including Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
The curiosity of Ledger's final, less showy role, and Gilliam devotees will generate some interest, though the mangy storyline is subservient to the cast (honoring Ledger in a way) and its artistic inspiration.
Gilliam worked through the messiness of dealing with the completion of his vivid, kinetic work after Ledger's sudden death in early 2008, adding Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to the list of which the setting is modern-day London.
A mordant opening has Ledger's Tony Shepherd hanging by a noose from the bridge. It happens that Tony's on the lam due to his dubious handling of a children's charity. In this loopy, serendipitious experience that has its agenda about identity.
Travelling, not-so-spiritual, showman Parnassus (Plummer of Up) is elder troupe ducat that includes the almost-16-year-old elfin Valentina (Cole), his daughter, as well as the ardent Anton (Andrew Garfield) drawn to Valentina, and a dwarf Percy (Verne Troyer of the Austin Powers movies). They conduct their business from a neatly fabricated horse-drawn stage.
A suicidal, forgetful Tony is "rescued" from the bridge one night by this unsuspecting group, ala, the forgettable Cirque de Freak, this mercurial, clandestine fellow hooks up with them with some novel ideas on generating more of a following.
The often unique, eventful, if conflicted journey concocted by Gilliam and Charles McKeown involves the gambling, restless Buddhist-minded Parnassus in cahoots with the devious Mr. Nick (Tom Waits, a Jim Jarmusch favorite). Parnassus will earn immortality in exchange for Valentina's soul on her upcoming birthday as Tony helps him on this bet to see who collects five souls first.
The internalization of the characters are handled well in what jangles and sometimes fascinates in a medieval, flowery way. The title ends up being what attracts a quartet to enter a special mirror, with haunting or amazing ensuing experiences. It allows Gilliam to bring the dimensionality of claiming souls and the alter-egos or varying incarnations of Tony, performed by Depp (who has a close resemblance at first), Law, and, best of all, Farrell.
Ledger, identified by his white suit, has more screentime than expected in this rattling, cinematic rollercoaster ride with some emotion and subtext, as Plummer fares better than a giddy Garfield in this tongue-in-cheek through-the-looking glass tale that isn't as much of a curse as anticipated.