So far, Parnassus seems to be getting mixed reviews, with critics enjoying Gilliam's inventiveness (especially in figuring out how to switch in other actors for Ledger) but feeling like the film is mostly for an arthouse audience or for die-hard fans.
To anyone not sympathetic to Gilliam's flights of fantasy, Parnassus will reek of rambling self-indulgence but fans will welcome it as a return to what he does best.
The Hollywood Reporter says that Gilliam used great imagination and skill to replace Ledger, but the film doesn't rank with Gilliam's greatest work. And the HR offers a bit of a plot summary:
Filled with phantasmagorical images with the occasional echo of "Monty Python's Flying Circus," the picture involves a classic duel between the forces of imagination, led by Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), and the architect of fear and ignorance, known here as Mr. Nick (Tom Waits).
Andrew Garfield and Lily Cole provide youthful love interest, and Ledger is again the joker in the pack as a stranger who is not what he seems.
The setting is a horse-drawn carnival sideshow in modern London, an attraction in which Dr. Parnassus, who claims to be immortal, invites ticket buyers to enter a world of their own imagination by stepping through a large mirror. Once beyond it, faces change and fates vary, which is how Gilliam gets away with having Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell step into the Ledger role.
Ledger makes his entrance as a man being hanged from London's Blackfriar's Bridge with his arms tied at his back. Saved and named George by the members of Dr. Parnassus' troupe, he claims to remember nothing and joins the players. The doctor and Mr. Nick have a lifelong wager in which the soul of Dr. P's daughter (Cole) is the prize, and he suspects the devil has placed George there to make trouble. The rest of the film involves various plunges into the mirror's vast wonderland, with George changing physiognomy along the way.
With Ledger onscreen more than might have been expected, the film possesses strong curiosity value bolstered by generally lively action and excellent visual effects, making for good commercial prospects in most markets.
With clumsy dialogue, poor plotting and some downright terrible performances, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a huge disappointment for any fan of Terry Gilliam's work.
There's no doubt that the imaginary world he's created is awe-inspiring, but it's ultimately designed for an art house audience.
The critics at Cannes loved it, but most cinema-goers would need to see it more than once to start untangling the multiple themes.
As for Ledger, it feels like a post-script performance - he's only in the movie for a third of the time and even if he had lived to complete it, it wouldn't be chalked up as one of his most memorable films.
The Huffington Post gives it one and a half stars out of four:
This modest fantasy feels like a mishmash of the usual Terry Gilliam obsessions, but less so.
When Gilliam shoots off into his surreal wonderland, his film has a kind of helium-filled jollity and spectacle. The moments when Plummer's face looms hugely out of the hallucinatory landscape are great: a reminder of the old Python magic. But the film's convoluted curlicues are tiring, insisting too loudly on how "imaginative" everything is. And when it descends into the real world – Lucy out of the sky without diamonds, as it were – the film can frankly be a bit ho-hum, with some very broad acting from the bit-part crowd players. Gilliam's previous movie Tideland showed he still has teeth, and he bares them occasionally here. The dark side reveals itself, time and again, in the ruined, unsentimental locations in London. But this movie, though perfectly amiable, could be for fans only.