The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is about an old man, Dr. Parnassus's deal with the Devil for his daughter Valentina's soul. But that is only the framework for Gilliam's fabulous visual depictions of Dr. Parnassus's ability to let his audience wander into their fantasies. Christopher Plummer was wonderful as the mad old mystic/king and Tom Waits was a delightful and quite affable Devil, who is much more interested in the game than in the spoils. Anyone who thinks the movie is a pasted-together save attempt by Gilliam and friends doesn't know what a Gilliam movie is like. And as Gilliam movies go, this is a quite good one. Like the sepia-toned start to The Wizard of Oz, Gilliam's movies usually start out murky and grubby, but then someone turns the handle and the door opens to the technicolor beauty of his imagination gone wild.
Heath Ledger plays a man who has fallen in with this strange traveling dream troupe by chance or design, but he quickly shifts the focus of their performances and the film on himself. Even with his part played posthumously by three other distinctive actors, Ledger owns the film. It is a true tribute to him that the talented trio actually manage to effortlessly convey the character he created, including inflections and mannerisms—so much so that a few times I had to really look hard to be sure it wasn't Ledger again.
Johnny Depp is a director's best friend. Anyone who has seen Lost in La Mancha knows just how much of a friend he has been to Gilliam. Gilliam, the eternal optimist, always tilting at Hollywood windmills, is still bound and determined to get his Don Quixote film off the ground, no matter how long it takes. Maybe he'll do it. At the moment it's supposed to be cast with Ewan McGregor and Robert Duvall. Who knows—by the time he finally gets to begin production, it might have Depp as Quixote.
Depp's sequence in this film is set in a Wonderland far superior to the one dreamed up for him by Tim Burton. At one point he tells his customer/victim, whose fantasy has taken a darker tinge, that burning out and dying young is not tragic, as she will never have to get sick and will always be young and beautiful. Just like Heath.
Colin Farrell may have gotten the best alternate-Heath, as he gets to play a love scene with Valentina (the lovely Lily Cole), as well as some dramatic character twists and turns. It's hard not to view the movie as a stunt, with its cast of superstar substitutes, but the three actors who took over for Ledger are all fantastic, and work seamlessly as mirror images/facets of his character. In fact, they may add a dimension to the piece that wouldn't be there if the role had been played by one man. Depp is the emotional side, Law the lighthearted side, and Farrell the darker aspects of the character. All traits are already present, but not immediately visible, when Ledger's character is on the other side of the mirror.
There were so many fabulous visual references I will have to watch again and again to catch them all, but the ones that registered this go-round were The Wizard of Oz, King Lear, Monty Python (of course) and Gilliam's own films, especially The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Time Bandits and The Fisher King. There were also numerous nods to paintings, including those by Hieronymous Bosch.
At one point early in the film Valentina says to her father, "You never finish a story!" There is so much in this movie that has a double, even triple, meaning—Gilliam's constantly thwarted efforts at film-making, the fate of star Heath Ledger, the role of the artist as a storyteller, the audience as the listeners, what it is to make and watch a film. In the end, everyone has their own imaginarium.
p.s. from Wikipedia:
Depp, Farrell, and Law opted to redirect their wages for the role to Ledger's young daughter, Matilda, ... and Gilliam altered the part of the credits saying "A Terry Gilliam film" to "A film from Heath Ledger and friends."
“ Maestro Gilliam has made a sublime film. Wonderfully enchanting and beautiful, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a uniquely ingenious, captivating creation; by turns wild, thrilling and hilarious in all its crazed, dilapidated majesty. Pure Gilliam magic! It was an honor to represent Heath. He was the only player out there breathing heavy down the back of every established actor's neck with a thundering and ungovernable talent that came up on you quick, hissing rather mischievously with that cheeky grin, "hey... get on out of my way, boys, I'm coming through..." and does he ever!!! ... and as for my other cohorts, Colin Farrell and Jude Law, they most certainly did Master Ledger very proud, I salute them.”—Johnny Depp
“ I have always loved Terry Gilliam's films. Their heart, their soul, their mind, always inventive, touching, funny and relevant. When I got the call, it was a double tug. I liked Heath very much as a man and admired him as an actor. To help finish his final piece of work was a tribute I felt compelled to make. To help Terry finish his film was an honour paid to a man I adore. I had a great time on the job. Though we were all there in remembrance, Heath's heart pushed us with great lightness to the finish.”—Jude Law
It’s not hard for me to imagine that if I ever look back on the films I’ve been a part of, and the stories I’ve had a hand in telling, one will stand out as so unique an experience, as to be incomparable. This experience was the shooting of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The reasons for its uniqueness, sadly, are probably obvious to anyone who reads this. Three of us had been asked to complete a task that had been set in motion by a man we greatly liked and respected as both a person and an artist. Being part of this film was never about filling Heath’s shoes as much as seeing them across the finish line. ... It was this spirit of grieving the loss of Heath, that Johnny and Jude and I joined. But there was also a sense of dogged insistence. Insistence that Heath’s last piece of work should not be kept in the shadow of the light of day. More than anything, though – more than the sadness and shock, the vulnerability and un-suredness as to whether it was right to complete the film or not – was an incredible sense of love. ... Such a gift and an honor, from Heath, to be a part of the trail that he left behind. RIP Heath Ledger x—Colin Farrell