Director Terry Gilliam shut down the picture and assumed it could never be completed. "Luckily, I was surrounded by good people who told me I couldn't be so lazy," Gilliam told the press at Cannes on May 22. And a solution was found that not only "works" but, in interesting ways, enriches the story.
So, what happens when you have an Australian, an American, an Englishman and an Irishman all walking though the same magic mirror? Entertaining things.
Doctor Parnassus (an absolutely wonderful Christopher Plummer) is immortal as the result of a pact made over 1000 years ago with the devil, known here as "Mr. Nick" and played with gravelly aplomb by Tom Waits. In contemporary London, the doctor, his teenage daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) and troupe members Anton (Andrew Garfield) and Percy (Verne Troyer, perhaps best known as Mini Me, in a straight role) give impromptu performances from their portable theater. Playing mostly to the poorer areas of the city, they invite patrons to walk through a slit-down-the-middle mirror that leads to fantastic and unpredictable landscapes.
Ledger played Tony as a fellow who may be helpful, may be harmful and should definitely be dead. (Given Ledger's untimely demise, much will be made of how Tony cheats death, but those scenes should be read as long-percolating fantasy and not ironic wishful thinking.)
All four Tonys sport a white suit and similar facial hair. The three adjunct Tonys take on some of Ledger's mannerisms but also bring their own flourishes to the part (one of the special effects that Law ends up with really stood out for us).
The result is an epic, frequently comical and always imaginative showdown between good and evil, played out with a slightly overbearing mix of declaiming and flailing and rescued by wonderful set pieces in the Imaginarium itself.
Although there are dark and scary moments along the way, the ending is both satisfying and happy.
Viewers who have enjoyed Gilliam's free-wheeling flights of fancy in the past will find this to be a sort of "Terry's Greatest Hits," enhanced by truly inventive special effects work. Ledger and Company's Tony is just one of several characters in an ensemble cast of very gifted performers.