I've been a Terry Gilliam fan for a long time. Though I don't think his films always work, I admire his imagination and vision - and his willingness to persevere in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Gilliam, as legendary for his run of bad luck as a filmmaker as for his fantastic visuals and dark humor, seemed to hit the ultimate snag with The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, when one of his stars, Heath Ledger, died of a drug overdose in the middle of production in early 2008. Rather than scrap the film, Gilliam found a device that allowed him to work around Ledger's absence and finish the film.
The device itself is surprisingly seamless. The movie, unfortunately, is not.
So The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus winds up as yet another case of a film with not enough story for the amount of movie there is. There is a cornucopia of memorably fantastic images - but the script offers too much blather and not enough exploration of the themes Gilliam is pursuing.
The title construct is a traveling show, headed by Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), and including his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) and his various employees. Eventually they're joined by a con man named Tony (Ledger), who doesn't quite realize what he's playing with here.
Because while it comes off as an elaborate illusion, the Imaginarium is real: a portal to a dimension in which one's dreams can come true. If the person who enters this world (which is different for each person) has a pure heart, the dreamer is returned to reality, overcome with ecstasy at the visions he or she has seen, borne on a swing while laughing and grinning.
But for those who aren't true of heart, the Imaginarium turns into a nightmare mousetrap, where the dreamer is transformed into a live-action cartoon character and transported to some Looney Tunes version of hell, never to return to the real world.