Reviewed By Doug Bentin
Posted 11/17/05 10:28:56

"It hints of “Coraline,” but so what?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“Vision” is a word that gets bandied about a good deal in film circles. It’s usually used in discussions of the way the director sees the world, or the way in which he wants to tell a particular story so long as his way doesn’t conflict with commercial, union, demographic, or budgetary concerns, casting, or executive input.

You want to make a picture about Einstein’s moral conflict over the creation of the atom bomb? Great! See if you can get Tom Cruise.

But directorial vision can make it to the screen, and we critics love it when it happens. That’s why we tend to fawn so over Hitchcock, Fellini, Bergman, guys like that, or contemporaries like Gilliam and Burton. Even when their movies aren’t so great, they’ve put an individual stamp on them.

Long introduction to the film “MirrorMask,” which was written by Neil Gaiman and directed/designed by his long-time collaborator Dave McKean, possibly unknown to you unless you’ve experienced the work he’s painted to illustrate Gaiman’s comic book and graphic novel stories.

McKean is no Bob Kane. His work is to traditional comics drawings what Brahms’ Fourth Symphony is to “Ach Du Lieber Augustin” blaring out from an ice cream truck. It’s part Dali, part Bosch, part Munch, part Escher, part LSD flashback. McKean is to illustration what Lewis Carroll was to words. He takes things apart and then puts them back together again. Sort of.

And McKean’s brought this vision, with a script by Gaiman, to the screen.

The story is simplicity itself, a fairy tale-like springboard from which to launch sizzling visuals. Open on a Felliniesque circus. Primary colors, basic acts. It’s a small show, family owned. Teen daughter Helena (Stephenie Leonidas) wants out and her mother (Gina McKee) accuses her of selfishness. Then mom falls ill with what seems to be cancer and Helena feels guilty.

But before Mom undergoes surgery, Helena is whisked away to a dream land where she meets Valentine, a masked juggler who becomes her companion on a quest to retrieve the magical MirrorMask, the device needed to awaken the White Queen and send the sinister Black Queen back to the Land of Shadows.

Along the way our two wanderers meet a variety of oddball characters and face the standard fantasy dangers.

Right. The plot isn’t at all original, purely Fairy Tale 101 stuff, although Gaiman’s dialogue is frequently amusing.

Leonidas is charming as Helena and as the Black Queen’s daughter, who wants to escape this Mirrorland as much as Helena does. The Princess has managed to slip into Helena’s world. We see her every so often when Helena looks into a mirror, or a picture hanging on a wall. Our sight goes through the object and we see into Helena’s bedroom where the look-alike is going through drawers, fighting with the real Helena’s dad, or, most ominously, tearing down the drawings on the wall that could server as a portal for Helena to use to return to her own world.

Jason Barry is quirky as the effervescent Valentine, now comforting, now traitorous. The only cast member you know from this very British film is Stephen Fry, and if you don’t recognize his voice, you won’t even know him as he’s hidden behind one of McKean’s fancies.

I found the film to be visually stimulating and off-kilter in that patented Brit way. None of the images are too frightening or too odd for kids, if it’s even possible to be too odd for kids. I hope it isn’t, but I haven’t been one for a long time.

But honestly, if you’re one of those guys who dismisses art as “pretentious” because that’s easier than making an attempt to understand it, this film is not for you. On the other hand, if you’re up to a movie that’s a dream within a dream, give “MirrorMask” a try.

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