‘The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus’

Enter at your own risk.

Words to the wise if you’re planning on entering "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" — or, more precisely, the imaginarium of Terry Gilliam.

This latest entry in Gilliam’s flying circus demonstrates yet again (as if we needed further proof) that the former Monty Python-ite doesn’t make conventional movies. Or logical ones, either.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Venturing into Gilliam’s fantasy factory may require multiple leaps of faith, but they generally pay off, thanks to his phantasmagorical visions and philosophical musings.

That’s the case in "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus," which comes with more challenges than most of Gilliam’s high-wire acts — notably the death of Heath Ledger, his "Brothers Grimm" star, in January 2008, partway through production.

Thanks to some savvy script wizardry and the trio of Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law riding to the rescue to complete Ledger’s scenes, Gilliam was not only able to finish the movie, but to make the multiple character switcheroos work within the movie’s crazy-mirror context.

And while Ledger’s death definitely haunts "Dr. Parnassus," it’s far from a fatal blow.

After all, as Ledger’s character says at one point, "Nothing is permanent — not even death."

Just ask Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), who’s been around long enough — centuries, millennia, possibly forever — to have seen it all.

Befitting his name (the mountain in Greece where the mythological Muses lived), Dr. Parnassus used to sit high atop a mountain, reciting the stories that keep the world going ’round.

These days, however, he’s just an old-fashioned carnival performer, traveling in a horse-drawn wagon with his teenage daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), earnest young Anton ("Boy A’s" Andrew Garfield) and cynical dwarf Percy (Verne "Mini-Me" Troyer).

Together, they perform along the fringes of contemporary London, earning more jeers — and empty beer bottles launched in their direction — than paying customers.

Until the fateful night they encounter the enigmatic Tony (Ledger) and rescue him from almost certain death. (Seeing Ledger in such straits is unsettlingly eerie.)

Turns out Tony’s a born charmer whose talents extend to cadging scads of money from customers; exactly how he comes by this talent forms one thread of the movie’s sometimes tangled tale.

Another thread involves Dr. Parnassus’ ongoing game of wits with his longtime nemesis, Nick (Tom Waits), an old devil who’s forever tricking the easy-touch shaman into making ill-advised wagers, one of which might destroy his beloved daughter’s future.

And then there’s the Imaginarium itself, a fantastical wonderland where those who venture through a mirrored curtain may see their hearts’ desires — and the difficult choices they must make for those dreams to come true. (If dreams ever can come true, that is.)

Working once again with screenwriter Charles McKeown ("Brazil," "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen"), Gilliam spins yet another tale of a tale-spinner, exploring the vital role stories, and storytelling, play in making humans, well, human.

Also as usual in a Gilliam tale, it’s the images, far more than mere words, that carry the story. And "Dr. Parnassus" conjures some deliriously demented wonderscapes (many reminiscent of Gilliam’s glorious Monty Python creations), where rich London matrons wander through giant forests of designer shoes — and altruistic do-gooders climb ladders to the clouds. (To say nothing of an all-singing, all-dancing chorus line of cops inviting thugs to join them because "We Love Violence.")

Yes, Gilliam sometimes allows the social commentary to weigh things down, but his nimble players keep the humor — and the humanity — in motion.

From Troyer’s deadpan delivery to Waits’ rapscallion menace, "Dr. Parnassus" teems with intriguing characters. Model-turned-actress Cole conveys Valentina’s conflicting desires with feisty forthrightness, while Garfield manages to make his annoying character curiously endearing. (Or maybe it’s the other way around.)

In the title role, the delightfully grizzled Plummer ruminates and rumbles with world-weary resignation — and an unmistakable twinkle in his eye.

As Tony, Ledger gives his quicksilver charm a memorably melancholy tinge, while his all-star alter egos effectively reflect various aspects of his character — Depp slyly dashing, Law slickly ingratiating, Farrell desperate to disguise his unmistakable dark side.

It’s impossible not to wonder what "Dr. Parnassus" might have been if Ledger had played all of his role. Alas, we have no Imaginarium to help us discover that truth.

Yet it’s a tribute to Gilliam’s prodigious vision (and persistence) that "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" proves well worth seeing despite (and, perhaps, because of) its star-crossed history.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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