Terry Gilliam’s films used to be an endless source of magic for me. Time Bandits is a film I remember watching countless times as a child on TV and the family’s top-loading VCR, and I always felt special that I shared a first name with the protagonist. When I started watching cinema with a slightly more critical eye, Brazil was a paradigmatic work that really defined what fantasy in film was supposed to be, something which The Adventures of Baron Munchausen followed up on. But then Gilliam’s work started to diverge from what made it special for me. The Fisher King focused too much on the central romance for my taste. Twelve Monkeys I skipped altogether and I didn’t care for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I was really looking forward to The Brothers Grimm at the Tokyo International Film Festival, which Gilliam was scheduled to visit, but couldn’t go at the last minute because of a work commitment and then the nearly universal poor reviews put me off the film and never got around to seeing it. I loved Tideland, and was probably one of the few people in the world who did. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus seemed like a return to form for me, but the press coverage on how the director was able to complete the film after the unexpected death of Heath Ledger, by getting the actor’s pal’s Johnny Depp, Colin Farrel and Jude Law to stand in for him, was so ubiquitous at the time of its release that it kind of put me off the film for a while.
The central idea of the story—of a 1,000-year-old-man with a sideshow attraction that manifests visitors’ imaginations, all as part of a wager with the devil—is pure Gilliam and is probably the best script he has worked with since Time Bandits. Model Lily Cole proves to be the perfect Gilliam heroine, and the 80-year-old Christopher Plummer does a wonderful job of playing the millennia-old magician at various stages of his long life. Many people obviously felt compelled to praise Ledger’s performance, as it was his last, but I didn’t find him especially remarkable, and his English accent is not all that convincing. Although consider myself a fan of Tom Waits’ music, I usually consider his cameo appearances in films as little more than gimmick casting. However, he obviously relishes playing the devil here and doesn’t do a bad job of it. The one thing that came as a bit of a disappointment was the prevalence of CGI inside the imaginarium, which doesn’t have a fraction of the earlier analog special effects of Time Bandits and Munchausen, but those would have been prohibitively expensive in this day and age.