As the film begins, we see that we are in London. The camera zooms over and then into the city and we are taken into a dark alley behind a bar. A large horse-drawn wagon rolls up and opens to reveal a kind of shoddy traveling show like you might see at a carnival. Onto the stage steps Anton, a young slight-of-hand magician dressed like Mercury, a costumed dwarf, the immortal Dr. Parnassus and his 16-year-old daughter Valentina who stands before a mirror. Together, they try to entice drunken Londoners to enter the Imaginarium for a small fee of 5 pounds. Most people simply laugh, but a particularly nasty drunk takes an interest in Valentina and pursues her through the mirror. He steps into the imagination of Dr. Parnassus and begins to chase Valentina through a forest. He falls into the mud, splashes water on his face and sees in the puddle that his face is now different. He wanders around in the infinite space and is confronted with a choice. He can climb a large staircase to salvation or he can visit a derelict-looking bar called Nick’s. The drunk chooses to visit Nick’s, a building that explodes once he is inside. Outside, Dr. Parnassus feels a pang and remarks that he has lost another soul. The police arrive looking for the drunk, but when the mirror is pushed aside, they find only an open door at the back of the wagon. Anton remarks that the drunk simply stumbled out the back and the group departs.
We next see the group performing at a carnival. Once again there are few customers. An obnoxious family walks by, fighting loudly, and a boy stumbles into the Imaginarium while playing his hand-held video game. Valentina asks Anton to fetch the boy because he is only a child. Anton reluctantly agrees and rescues the child from a fantasy candy world. While Anton tends to the boy, the dwarf Percy finds Dr. Parnassus conversing with Mr. Nick, the devil. Mr. Nick is antagonizing the drunk Parnassus by reminding him of the fact that there are only a few days left before he wins Valentina. Mr. Nick departs and Percy advises Parnassus that he will have to tell Valentina about the wager sooner or later. That evening, we see Valentina and Anton talking about escaping the traveling show. Valentina longs for a normal life like the people she reads about in magazines. Anton, an orphan Parnassus rescued from the streets, is in love with her. Valentina wears a bracelet on her ankle that makes a jingly noise when she walks, a gift from Parnassus that also helps him keep track of her. Valentina leaves Anton to tend to her father who is drunk in his room inside the wagon. Parnassus begins to tell Valentina the story of his wager with the devil. Parnassus was once a monk who was responsible for perpetually and constantly telling the story that sustains the universe. One day, Mr. Nick visits and forces the monks to stop narrating the magical story. The world does not end, but Parnassus believes that this is because somewhere someone else is telling a magical story. However, Mr. Nick tempts him with a wager. He argues that people are no longer interested in stories and imagination. He challenges Parnassus to win more souls with imagination that he can with earthly temptations. If Parnassus wins, Mr. Nick will grant him immortality. Parnassus tells Valentina that he managed to beat the devil, but that the devil continued to make new wagers with Parnassus throughout time. At one point, Parnassus wins back his mortality and youth so that he can win the heart of Valentina’s mother, who miraculously gets pregnant with Valentina when she is 60 years old and dies in childbirth. The current wager happens to be for Valentina herself. People enter the Imaginarium and must chose between Parnassus and imagination or Mr. Nick and earthly temptation and Parnassus, in a modern world without imagination, is losing.
At this point, the flashback is interrupted by Anton who sees “someone dancing on the water.” It is in fact the shadow of a man hanging from a bridge and Anton decides to rescue him even though Percy thinks that the man is already dead. The man is Tony (Heath Ledger), a suave con artist who was hung by the Mafia because he was unable to repay a loan. Anton revives Tony, who spits out a small metal tube. This is a tube that Tony swallows before he his hung so that his windpipe won’t collapse. However, Tony pretends not to remember much of anything at first and ingratiates himself with the group, with the exception of Anton. Anton is suspicious of Tony and jealous of the fact that Valentina is infatuated with the charming newcomer. As Mr. Nick’s deadline approaches, Parnassus drinks heavily but the devil clearly enjoys the game more than the outcome and offers the doctor a ray of hope. He tells Parnassus that the first to win five souls wins Valentina and Parnassus accepts in part because Tony has revitalized the Imaginarium show. As a seasoned con artist, Tony is able to charm people into the Imaginarium although he initially believes that it is all a scam and the group begins to make money and win more souls for Parnassus.
Tony decides to take the Imaginarium into a posh shopping mall in order to attract wealthy but spiritually empty people that he believes will make perfect targets. Although the wealthy customers are skeptical at first, they soon line up for a chance to experience the happiness that their money never gave them. The first woman, an elderly lady, stumbles inside and Tony soon follows, pushed by other eager clients. He is amazed to discover that the Imaginarium is no scam! He follows the woman over a lily pond and past some large shoes to a river. He notices that his face has changed to conform to the woman’s image of the ideal man (Johnny Depp) and the woman clearly lusts after him. Across the river, Mr. Nick has opened a sleazy hotel perfect for a tryst. The woman tries to pull Tony over a bridge to the hotel, but Tony draws her attention to a gondola. If she chooses the gondola, Tony tells her that she will become immortal like Princess Diana. The woman chooses to ride in the gondola and Parnassus wins a soul. The woman exits the Imaginarium and is so thrilled that she gives them all her wealth. Parnassus wins three more souls before some Mafiosos arrive and recognize Tony. Fearful for his life, Tony enters the Imaginarium and the Russian mobsters follow. The Imaginarium reflects Tony’s fantasy now and he climbs a long ladder into the sky, overjoyed and happy. The mobsters bring him down, however, and chase him around. When they catch him, Tony’s face has changed again (Jude Law) in an attempt to throw them off, but it doesn’t work. Instead, they prepare to kill Tony but Anton arrives and tries to fight them. The fisticuffs are interrupted by Parnassus who tempts the mobsters with a life as policemen while Mr. Nick appears as their Russian mother. The mobsters run and hide under their mother’s skit and she blows up. The devil has quickly tied Parnassus with four souls each and there is only an hour to go. Anton leaves the Imaginarium disgusted with Tony and the show is forced to run away. Meanwhile Valentina finally learns that the devil will come for her within the hour and she lashes out against her father and flees.
Tony is desperate to return to the happiness he found in the Imaginarium and begins to set up the show in an attempt to get Parnassus to allow him back inside. He offers himself as the fifth soul but Parnassus is almost too drunk to enter the necessary trance. Tony is eventually able to relax him and enters the mirror, joined by Valentina who also longs to escape. It is initially unclear whose fantasy the Imaginarium is reflecting, Tony or Valentina’s. They share a boat ride down a romantic river and it is suggested that they make love. Tony is now played by Colin Farrell because Farrell appeared in a photo of a loving family in one of Valentina’s magazines. The pristine river soon turns putrid, however, with the arrival of Mr. Nick and as the two flee the boat, Tony’s fantasy begins to dominate. We see Tony as the beloved head of an important children’s charity although it is clear that he is not sincere and that his affection for Valentina was also phony. He is preparing to make his speech at a benefit and is joined by Valentina and two children for a photo op. Suddenly, one of the children reveals himself to be Anton who urges Valentina to run, telling her that Tony is a scammer who took mob money. Tony, enraged, begins to beat Anton and the fight spills out onto the benefit stage. The crowd is aghast because it appears as though Tony is beating a small child. Suddenly, Tony’s fantasy literally begins to splinter and collapse. Anton falls into the abyss, Tony runs off while being chased by a large crowd and Valentina also flees only to encounter Mr. Nick. Mr. Nick presents her with two doors and tries to dissuade her from entering the one to Hell. They dance together and Valentina slips into the wrong door she was supposed to be the devil’s prize but instead she has become the fifth soul!
Mr. Nick is not happy and appears before Parnassus. He offers to give Valentina back if Parnassus will help him kill Tony, a soul the devil has apparently been after for a long time. We see Tony scrambling up the large flight of stairs from the beginning of the film and we see that he tries to swallow his metal tube before the mob can hang him. Parnassus appears, however, and using slight-of-hand, tricks Tony into swallowing the wrong tube. Tony is hung, but he dies, satisfying Mr. Nick. Mr. Nick leaves Parnassus is despair and alone to wander the Imaginarium in search of Valentina, who was released from Hell but no one knows where she is. We see Parnassus walk for years until he finally finds his way out of the Imaginarium and is a beggar on the streets of London. Suddenly, a woman wearing Valentina’s ankle bracelet walks by and he knows that he has found his daughter. He follows her to a restaurant and watches through the window as she meets with her husband Anton and little daughter. Parnassus suddenly feels a tug on his clothing and turns around to find an elegantly-dressed Percy. Percy remarks that Parnassus looks like a disgrace and says that it will take a lot of work to rebuild the show. In the final scene, we see Parnassus selling a small cardboard version of the original Imaginarium with little puppet versions of the original troupe. Children are lining up to purchase the toys, thus proving that imagination is not yet dead. Mr. Nick appears with a new wager, but Parnassus is whacked by Percy before he can succumb.
The screen fades to black and we see that the film is dedicated to Heath Ledger.
*CUT TO THE CHASE*
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Toni (Heath Ledger) is found hanging under a bridge by Valentina (Lily Cole), Dr Parnassus' (Chr. Plummer) daughter and Anton, the slight of hand artist of the Imaginarium. Toni doesn't remember who he is or what happened to him, at least in the beginning.
Dr Parnassus thinks that Toni was sent by Fate to help him win his daughter by means of a new bet with Mr. Nich [the devil]. Toni lures rich women into the Imaginarium and wins their souls. However, four Russian mobsters spot him in a mall and start chasing him. He hides in the Imaginarium and the mobsters follow him. So their souls are claimed by the devil and it is a tide. Toni offers his soul to help Dr Parnassus. He goes into the Imaginarium with Valentina, where they make love. And here follows the twist: Toni is actually a conman who had set up a charity to help children from developing countries, when in fact he is selling these children's organ to wealthy Westerns. So he is actually the bad guy. Dr. Parnassus makes a deal with the Devil to kill Toni so that he can have his daughter back. He succeeds by tricking Toni with some slight of hand.
At the end, Dr Parnassus is seen begging on the streets when he sees a woman looking as his daughter, He follows her to a fancy restaurant and sees her with her husband - Anton- and her daughter. He is reunited with his dwarf and ends up selling Imaginarium games made of paper to children.
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