This is a movie about a man with the ability to give people access to the inside of his own imagination (or perhaps more their own imaginations - on this, as on other matters, it's a bit vague). That's slightly ironic, as the best reason to go see it is the chance to spend a couple of hours on the inside of Terry Gilliam's visual imagination.
It's a Gilliam film which reminds one of other Gilliam films, especially Time Bandits but also The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and others - his most visually fantastical efforts, perhaps. However, it's a bit skimpier on actual content even than those, let alone than some of his more serious creations. There's a plot and structure of sorts on offer, involving the power of story (actually questioned quite harshly here, unlike in many fantasy films in our current Gaimanian era, which makes a change) and a deal or two with a rather half-hearted devil, but I was left feeling that any time Gilliam felt that he might sacrifice some clarity in favour of another fancy CGI-assisted set-piece, he took the deal gladly.
The cast is very good, but they've been given a bunch of non-characters to play, with damn all in the way of consistency, a tendency to disappear when no longer needed, and back stories that are at best left largely to our imaginations - and in some cases, notably Verne Troyer's, any hint of an explanation has presumably ended up on the digital cutting-room floor (unless we get a hint at the end that Troyer is some kind of cut-rate guardian angel, which feels like a stretch). Christopher Plummer sticks to doing world-weary like the old trouper he is, while Lily Cole looks amazing, static or in motion (and can act, too), but she and Heath Ledger (and the latter's stand-ins where required) are, well, stuck with the script.
But, but, but... Terry Gilliam. Visual design. CGI aside, the margins and fringes of London have never looked more shabbily gothic (what would film-makers do without Battersea Power Station?), and the way that a faded carnival show can so easily and swiftly expand into a visual wonderland stands as a symbol of, well, something. Time spent here isn't wasted, at all. But it's strange experience to find yourself missing the satirical bite of Time Bandits or a Monty Python sketch.