Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) is a young juggler frustrated with her life working in her family's circus. After a particularly vicious fight with her mother Joanne (Gina McKee, "Notting Hill"), Helena wishes her dead, and is soon paralyzed with guilt when Joanne is rushed to the hospital that very night. Falling asleep with reminders of her intricate drawings surrounding her, Helena wakes up in a fantasyland of masked creatures, towering sights, and an evil queen (also played by McKee) who wants to rule this otherworld. With the help of a local, Valentine (Jason Barry), Helena battles her way through danger and mystery, looking for a special mask that will restore peace to the land and save her mother.
Looking to get back its fertile fantasy roots, The Jim Henson Company brings to the screen "MirrorMask" (IMDb listing). A fireworks display for the eyes, and an overdue dose of sincerity for the genre, "MirrorMask" mostly delivers on its complex promises.
The press notes for the film stress that the Henson crew was looking to resurrect the fantasy entertainment that made them legends in the 1980s, with the wonderful "Labyrinth," and Jim Henson's masterpiece, "The Dark Crystal." For fans looking for that puppet-and-magic high, "MirrorMask" doesn't deliver on that level of optical thrills. Rendered almost entirely with shimmery golden CGI backgrounds and wildly imagined fantasy characters, there's a disconcerting polish to the film that doesn't envelope the viewer the way practical locations and people in rubber suits can. The tech credits are certainly proficient (love those human/feline hybrids), and, at times, the landscapes are quite sumptuous, but the glossy, 1994-CD-ROM-adventure-game visuals seem to take away the immediacy and texture of Helena's danger in her new surroundings, and, at times, pop that crucial balloon of wonderment.
With beloved fantasy writer Neil Gaiman assuming script duties, "MirrorMask" features incredible depth in its settings and spots of originality in its story. While essentially a reimagining of "Alice in Wonderland," with a bit of "Labyrinth" thrown in for good measure, Gaiman instills in the film a strong sense of the abstract. He also crams in entertaining messages on the magic of books (sometimes literally), and the importance of imagination. Gaiman's vision for the film is cluttered, but commendably ambitious, and he succeeds more than he fails in crafting an adventure/fantasy for thinking audiences.
Director David McKean does a capable job sorting out the many unique dream-like sequences, and he accomplishes quite an intricate motion picture for a film with a shockingly low budget (reportedly $4 million). While some faulty ideas seep in (the Massive Attack meets Kenny G musical score kills the opening moments), McKean maintains "MirrorMask" through the many flavors of fantasy that it enjoys. It isn't a perfect landing on this return flight for the Henson Company, but I really enjoyed the journey, even if technical progress has made the true magic of the genre obsolete.
Filmfodder Grade: B