Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 04/14/06 03:34:37

"Definitely not the sum of its overly familiar (fantasy) parts."
3 stars (Just Average)

Although "Sandman" writer Neil Gaiman and his longtime collaborator, Dave McKean, are given top billing, "MirrorMask" was initially conceived by The Henson Company. The Henson Company, founded by Jim Henson ("Sesame Street," "The Electric Company," "The Muppets"), has attempted on several occasions to branch out into feature filmmaking, beginning with the "The Dark Crystal" in 1982. Both "The Dark Crystal" and The Henson Company’s next live-action project, "Labyrinth" (released four years later), failed to bring in audiences theatrically. Both films, however, did well on video and, later, on DVD. The Henson Company brought in Gaiman and McKean to duplicate the success of their earlier fantasy films. It doesn’t, at least not on the level of story (it’s derivative, shallow, and ultimately pointless) or on the level of character (dull, lifeless, lost in digitally animated backgrounds).

Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), a temperamental teenager with artistic tendencies, wants a more stable life than her father (Rob Brydon) and mother (Gina McKee) can provide. Her father runs a small, traveling circus and her mother is both a ticket seller and a performer. Helena loses herself in a richly imagined dream world. To that end, the walls of her trailer are covered with sketches of her imaginary world. Helena’s conflict with her parents changes, though, when her mother is hospitalized. The prognosis doesn’t look good, and Helena’s mother faces surgery. Meanwhile, the circus remains closed and Helena’s father faces financial difficulties and an unhappy staff (they’re not getting paid, after all).

Troubled by some rough words with her mother before her mother fell ill, Helena falls asleep, dreaming first of an out-of-kilter version of the circus and then, after awakening in the middle of the night, finding her flat empty, her father and aunt Nan (Dora Bryan) both missing. Curious and frightened, Helena searches a now desolate apartment complex. She discovers three performers wearing masks rehearsing their routines outside. While they look and sound familiar, they treat Helena as a stranger (and comment on her unattractive appearance, since she’s not wearing a mask). Creeping shadows that turn everything (and everyone) in their path into volcanic stone send Helena and one survivor, Valentine (Jason Barry) fleeing through a door.

The door, of course, leads to a mist-covered, sepia-colored city where fish fly and skewed, organic, impossibly askew structures are the norm. Valentine fills Helena in on recent developments. Apparently, this dream world is splintered into two halves, one Light, one Shadow, one ruled by the Queen of Light (a.k.a. the White Queen) and the other ruled by the Queen of Shadows (a.k.a. the Black Queen). The Black Queen’s daughter has gone missing, first fleeing to the White City and the protection of the White Queen, then disappearing altogether. As a result, the White Queen lies in a magically induced sleep. With the Black Queen’s daughter gone and the White Queen unconscious, the world has gone out of balance.

Helena’s journey is a typical quest narrative. She must find a charm (hint: the title gives it away), bring it back, awaken the White Queen, and return the dream world into balance. After the queen’s guards arrest Helena and an interview with the prime minister (also played by Rob Brydon), Helena and Valentine begin their search at the city library, where books fly and have petulant personalities of their own. From there, clues send her to another section of the city, where floating giants hold a key (literally) to finding the charm. The creeping shadows force Helena and Valentine to flee, but not before Helena spots a tower that promises to bring her closer to the charm. Meanwhile, the Black Queen has offered a reward for the return of her daughter. Helena, it seems, resembles her daughter.

With its quest narrative, color-coordinated good and evil queens, charms or talismans that hold the key to salvation, fantastical creatures, sentient object, doubling (or, in one case, tripling), and mirror worlds, originality is in short supply. MirrorMask borrows elements and plot points from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, Michael Ende’s The Never Ending Story, and even Stephen King and Peter Straub’s The Talisman. Even with an unoriginal storyline, MirrorMask still had the potential to be engaging on at least two other levels, character and visual design.

Most fantasy tales involving children or teenagers center on the central character’s emotional journey into an adult-approved version of maturity. MirrorMask is no different, with Helena learning to put aside her teenage rebelliousness for peaceful co-existence with her parents. Putting aside possible objections to MirrorMask’s maturity theme, Helena’s emotional arc turns out to be perfunctory, underwritten, and uninvolving. Despite a dialogue-heavy, exposition-rich script, Gaiman and McKean give Helena little to do except search for the charm by following a series of clues that offer her minimal physical or emotional challenges. It's only when Helena discovers a new, existential threat that MirrorMask takes on a sense of urgency. This new plot point might sound like a plus, but it also makes the "saving the queen" goal unimportant and, later, unresolved (at least in Helena's dream world).

With "MirrorMask" failing on the story and character levels, "MirrorMask" will stand or fall on the basis of the visual design. Dave McKean receives a rare “designed/directed by” credit, which suggests that "MirrorMask" will, at minimum, offer its fair share of visual treats. "MirrorMask," though, was produced for a paltry $4 million dollar budget. It shows. To save money, green screens were substituted for physical sets. While McKean’s backgrounds are, at least, visually striking, thanks to McKean’s expressionistic leanings and Gaiman’s fanciful ideas, the character animation has little of the detail and texture audiences have come to expect from bigger-budgeted Hollywood films. Add to that heavily processed, often murky visuals, and "MirrorMask" is a film with almost nothing to recommend it. Even Gaiman's more rabid fans should pause before renting "MirrorMask."

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