Coming out of the Out-of-Competition Category at the tail end of Cannes is Terry Gilliam’s latest creative effort, an elaborate original idea with an even more elaborate, and talented, cast.

The story concerns Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), his traveling imaginarium and his small group of circus-like cohorts, who include up-and-comer Andrew Garfield as Anton, Verne Troyer (you know him as Mini-Me) as Percy and Lily Cole as Valentina.

Parnassus made a fateful deal with the devil, a.k.a. Mr. Nick (a brilliant Tom Waits), and has been trying to bet his way out ever since. The film opens only days before the reckoning of this deal.

This is Gilliam at his most imaginative, and, yes, I guess that pun was intended. The man is on his game here, recovering from a near decade of misses (i.e. the Don Quixote disaster and The Brothers Grimm) to bring something fun, nostalgic and viscerally visual to the screen. And without any U.S. funding, which has to be respected. The man is as independent a filmmaker gets with this film (the film has yet to be bought by an American distributor. It may depend on it’s reception at the festival, which has so far been mixed).

Dr. Parnassus is an immortal, once very religious and now broken by everlasting life. However, he still retains the power to control people inside his mind, using this power as a side-show attraction in which he makes ticket buyers’ imaginations come to life after they step through a makeshift mirror.

Heath Ledger plays Tony, a mysterious man in a white suit who becomes part of Parnassus’ imaginarium and a possible solution to the whole “devil” problem. Ledger passed away in the middle of shooting Imaginarium and Gilliam was ready to pull the plug on the whole project until his crew forced him to finish it. The director said as much when he spoke at Cannes this past Thursday.

To complete the film, Gilliam rewrote the screenplay with Charles McKeown so that three actors could step in and complete Ledger’s performance; those actors became Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. And the rewrite works and feels organic rather than forced, as the transformations occur seamlessly and with enough explanation to warrant it but not enough to complicate. The three veteran thespians do great work inside the world of the imaginarium, both echoing Ledger’s mannerisms and creating their own versions of the Tony character.

Plummer takes on the role of Parnassus of with an aged fervor, spitting and cursing and drinking with reckless abandon. This is the jaded king who can have no Shakespearean death because he wagered for immortality, courtesy of Mr. Nick.

To convey this kind of whimsical hopelessness, Gilliam and his art director Dave Warren (and his set designers as well) create a dirty, busy London that barely notices Parnassus and his old traveling act. This perfectly parallels the colorful, catch-as-catch-can world inside the mirror.

Ledger’s performance feels full throughout, and his part is light and charming, which serves as a nice epilogue to the talented actor. The introduction to his character, however, may be a little heavy for some.

Garfield serves as the comic relief in parts but is also one of the most endearing characters in the film; his Anton pines for Valentina as Tony comes in and steals her heart. These subplots are classic theatrics and Gilliam embraces the formula unabashedly while orchestrating his own visual world. His imaginarium is the product of all Gilliam films past and will resonate to fans of his work.

However, the real star of the film is Tom Waits as Mr. Nick. Sporting a raspy smoker’s accent and a maniacal half-stache and a Charlie Chaplin top hat, his character’s evil is matched by his charm and odd warmth towards Parnassus, who may be his only friend. Waits the musician does great work, but Waits the actor is catching up.

Depp, Law and Farrell all have fun with their embodiments of Tony. Farrell takes on the most actual character work, playing Tony during the film’s climax and, in the process, makes the character his own. Surprisingly enough, it works, even if the ending attempts to (SPOILER ALERT) cover all manner of narrative sins.

It is a return to form for Gilliam (and surely the best thing he’s done since 12 Monkeys) and a noble curtain call for one of the best actors of our generation.

7.5 out of 10

Are you excited for Imaginarium?

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