The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus represents a blessed reprieve in Terry Gilliam’s descent into moribund cruelty and rudderless repetition. It’s especially impressive given that it starts in broadly self-parodic terms: in grimy London streets, a colossal antiquity rolls forth like some kind of ghost vessel, a giant wooden wagon creaking along streets. Stopping outside a bar near closing time, the side of the wagon groans open, revealing a stage and a handful of motley characters beseeching a handful of stumbling drunks passing by to come behold a mysterious show. What looks like a rinky-dink operation, however, becomes something altogether more baffling when one of the jeering onlookers crashes the stage, heads through what appears to a simple fake mirror, only to find himself transported to another dimension where his imagination runs rampant.

Eventually, it becomes clear that this strange dream realm is the projection of Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), a decrepit old mystic who has found out the hard way that immortality does not necessarily entail eternal youth and health. Joined by a crew consisting of his driver, Percy (Verne Troyer); daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole); and faithful tag-along Anton (Andrew Garfield), Parnassus ambles around England in vague search of open-minded patrons willing to traverse the good doctor’s mind palaces and, God willing, provide enough cash to buy a hot meal. Gilliam’s style has always been arcane, from his arduously constructed cut-out animations for Monty Python to his quotations of medieval art and myth throughout his depictions of present immiseration. As such, he finds a fitting avatar in Parnassus, a creature from an era that perhaps never existed, a shaggy-dog storyteller whose casual bleeding of myths with social commentary and sexual psychosis is projected against a colossal backdrop. And just as Parnassus finds himself rendered obsolete by a world where seemingly all the stories have been told, so too is Gilliam made unfashionable in the era of CGI, which makes his own elaborate set design an unnecessary expense.

Inside the imaginarium, however, the director finds an excuse for toying with new special effects technology to expand his vision, not flatten it. The worlds conjured from the desires of Parnassus’ customers eschew trends toward animated realism for the defiantly candy-colored and cartoonish. A wealthy dowager, for instance, enters a realm of floating pumps and body-sized compact mirrors that show a reflection of her younger self, while a video-game obsessed child finds that his portable system can control active fire. Amid these projections of simple wants bloom stark divisions in paths that a person might take, one toward a vaguely defined moral conclusion advocated by Parnassus, another a seedy, vice-ridden temptation set as a soul trap by the Devil (Tom Waits).

Rare is the casting as perfect as assigning Waits the role of Satan. Appearing like a gigolo from Jazz Age New Orleans, he saunters in an out of the frame in a zoot suit and trilby, cigarette holder pointing like an arrow to the pencil mustache lining his mouth. With his bowel-loosening growl, Waits certainly sounds like a creature from hell, but he plays up Satan’s beguiling qualities. This devil loves his Faustian bargains, fighting Parnassus for the souls of those who enter the imaginarium with Valentina as the wager, but there’s something almost benign about Old Nick here, due in part to the genuine pleasure he appears to find in Parnassus as a fellow con-man whose con is that he is legitimately magical. The Devil loves bets for the fun of playing, and at one point, when he thinks he might come out on top, he looks genuinely disappointed that he might win his prize but have no more game left to play.

The flipside of Waits’ unexpectedly fraternal evil is Tony (Heath Ledger), a strange man rescued by Valentina and Anton when they discover him hanging under a bridge. Claiming amnesia, Tony can offer no explanation as to why or how he came to have a noose around his throat, but initially he seems innocent enough. With effortless charisma, he charms potential customers into a boon period for Parnassus’ business, and his silver tongue and good looks soon attract Valentina, much to a jealous Anton’s chagrin. Yet the longer Tony hangs around, the more his bewitching ways seem more like con artistry of the usual, venal kind, a sharp contrast to the more abstract, existential gamesmanship of Satan and Parnassus. Tony’s duplicity plays into Gilliam’s necessary efforts to deal with the fact that Ledger died in the middle of production, requiring recasting for effects-heavy scenes not yet shot. That means that Tony has a different face (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell) in the imaginarium, reflecting a hollow core surrounded by whatever façade he wishes to project to others.

Throughout the film, Gilliam seems more adventurous and giddier than he has in ages, and he finds fertile ground in the CG goofiness of the imaginarium for some satire. In one sequence, some Russian mobsters invade the area and find Parnassus tempting them toward the light by including a bunch of cops doing a musical number about how the police offer a lawful, “moral” outlet for violent tendencies. Earlier in the same scene, Tony enters the area and finds ladders scaling up into clouds that rain magazine covers regarding success, exposing the simple-minded avarice of his deepest dreams. The final act even proves to be surprisingly tragic, with Parnassus and his sympathetic nemesis weighing the implications of their wager and their long history with one another. The collapse of Parnassus’ wild creation, combined with a coda of him rebuilding with fewer tools and resources, is hard not to equate with Gilliam’s own financial and production woes over the decades, which, combined with box office failures, have narrowed his aesthetic breadth. Here, however, he scarcely seems bound by anything at all, and in freely indulging his reveries with the cost-cutting of CGI, the director produces not merely a much-needed comeback, but one of the most effervescent features of his career.

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