From the creative minds of director Dave McKean and screenwriter Neil Gaiman comes "Mirrormask," a partially live-action, partially computer-generated fantasy that goes to show how a $4-million film can be made to look like a $100-million extravaganza. Produced by the Jim Henson Company, and with unmistakable similarities between this, 1982's "The Dark Crystal," and 1986's classic "Labyrinth," "Mirrormask" also strongly recalls the likes of 1939's "The Wizard of Oz," 1984's "The Never-Ending Story," 1988's overlooked "Paperhouse," and Miyazaki's oeuvre, particularly 2002's "Spirited Away
." All of these pictures bring to life exciting new worlds never before glimpsed on film, and "Mirrormask" is no exceptionexcept for the "life" part. For all of its visionary achievements, this is one strangely indifferent filmgoing experience, with striking individual images never adding up to anything worth grabbing hold of or caring about. It's 101 minutes of the filmmakers' hard work put to no good useall flash and no dimension.
Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) is a mopey 15-year-old girl, the daughter of a pair of circus performers, who wants nothing more to do with her family's oddball career. Wishing her mother, Joanne (Gina McKee), dead during a heat-of-the-moment argument, Helena's statement threatens to come true when Joanne suddenly falls ill and is rushed to the hospital. With her beloved mother's life hanging in the balance and riddled with the guilt of maybe never being able to apologize for the nasty words she said, Helena enters a foreboding abstract fantasy land. She doesn't know for sure if this is really happening or if she's dreaming, but, with the help of masked guide Valentine (Jason Barry), Helena presses forward to the nightmarish Dark World where she hopes to find the key to saving her mother: a sacred mirrormask. Along the way, Helena must thwart the Queen of Dark (McKee in a dual role) and find a way to stop a bad version of herself whom she can see taking over her real-world life through the mirror's reflections.
Aesthetically impressive but desperately in need of a humanity that isn't just skin-deep, "Mirrormask" is akin to a sweaty fever dream, one where an onslaught of weird visions are thrown your way, with few (if any) sticking or making much sense. Narratively speaking, the film is as dreary as the Dark World itself, posing an uncomfortably take-it-or-leave-it disconnect between the images onscreen and the viewer. Only one fabulously creepy sequence within the fantasy world stirs up a strong emotion either way, as Helena is surrounded by Jack-in-the-box-style robotic creatures who hypnotize her with their haunting version of Burt Bacharach's "Close to You." It's a self-contained moment of assuredness that enmeshes both emotion and eye candy, rather than keeping the two separate from one another as happens for most of the movie.
It is telling that the only scenes of full audience interest are the live-action bookends. The first fifteen minutes are heartbreaking and vivid in a way director Dave McKean never manages to match again, as the sullen teenage world of Helena is opened up and crashes down with the abrupt ailment of her mother. Played straight and as real drama, the pre-fantasy first act is an enrapturing jumping-off point that doesn't keep up its end of the bargain. The second that Helena awakens to the worlds of Light and Dark, populated by odd, often horrific people and creatures, the film loses its emotional pull and becomes a murkily uninvolving slog through half-baked ideas and style over substance. A return to the real world in the last five minutes resuscitates the proceedings once more, but makes for a lackluster payoff in which the whole point of the fableHelena getting to talk to her mother once more and make amendsis washed over and forgotten about.
"Mirrormask" offers hints of attempted profunditytouching on everything from taking loved ones for granted to confronting the horrors of puberty and finally growing upbut they dissipate the moment computers take over. As heroine Helena, newcomer Stephanie Leonidas is an exquisitely likable find this side of Jennifer Connelly in "Labyrinth," handling the moments where she reacts to her own guilt with the skill and poignant naturalism of a veteran. She also does well in the provocative story thread in which a bad version of Helena is now taking over her world and gradually turning it to a dark place of desolation. All else, though, is internally cold, unfocused, and disappointingly flippant. Regrettably, "Mirrormask" is a study in communicative detachment; it has the look down pat, but what is underneath holds the expressiveness and passion of a store window mannequin.