PARK CITY -- If The Wizard of Oz
were reborn in the 21st century, it might look a lot like MirrorMask
. A product of the Jim Henson laboratory, the film is endlessly inventive with creativity to burn. The story of a wayward young circus performer and her adventures in a strange world is that rare animal that is sure to charm kids and also intrigue adults with its imagination. But because it is less familiar and more challenging than most films of this genre, luring the target audience will require equally creative marketing.
Helena (Stephanie Leonidas
) is an artistic and sensitive 15-year-old who ironically longs for a normal life instead of the eccentricity of her family-run circus. When her mother (Gina McKee
) falls seriously ill, Helena regrets all their arguments. That night, Helena's demons are unleashesd in a turbulent dream. Much as Dorothy is swept away to Oz by a tornado, Helena's unconscious transports her to an imaginary world of darkness and light constructed from fragments of her life.
Graphic novel innovators Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman
(creators of The Sandman
and Violent Cases
) have fashioned a fluid visual style with endless curves and no right angles. Cats with wings eat books that fly, giants float in the sky like parade floats, and monekybirds stalk the city.
Assisted by Valentine (Jason Barry
), a young chap with a mask and striped beard and questionable motives, Helena finds herself in the crossfire between the forces of good and evil. The princess of light, who bears a striking resemblance to Helena's mother and also is played by McKee, has fallen into a spell that can only be broken by the elusive magic mask, a charm that "concentrates your wishes and gives you what you want." And just as the Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion are based on friends and family Dorothy knew in Kansas, the prime minister of Helena's dreamscape is played by the same actor as her father (Rob Brydon).
Helena sets off on her own yellow brick road to retrieve the mask from the princess of darkness, again McKee, and revive the sleeping beauty. And from time to time, Helena glances back through a window at the girl she left behind in the real world. But a linear explanation does not begin to do justice to the visual spell of the film.
Unlike most fantasy films, MirrorMask
succeeds in transferring the mysterious undercurrent and wonder of the graphic novel to the screen. This is not an ordinary place, so anything is possible. A girl can be captured between the legs of a giant caterpillar, and a sphinx can turn nasty. You don't really know what is going to happen next.
Although it is set in a spectacular computer generated landscape, MirrorMask
does not have the artificiality of many CGI productions. Because director McKean and writer Gaiman have created such a strong reality and made the characters believable on their own wild terms, the action does not seem contrived. Rather than mass produced for a general audience, the film seems handmade and original with real human emotions.
Despite its classic influences, MirrorMask
feels fresh. As Helena wanders through a menacing forest trying to find her way home, she is exploring archetypal fears and needs. The ending is a bit abrupt and less satisfying than it might be, but MirrorMask
still goes places most films never even dream of.
Destination Films presents a Jim Henson Co. production
Director: Dave McKean
Screenwriter: Neil Gaiman
Story by: Neil Gaiman
& Dave McKean
Producer: Simon Moorhead
Executive producers: Lisa Henson, Michael Polis
, Martin G. Baker
Director of photography: Antony Shearn
Production designer: McKean
Music: Iain Ballamy
Costume designer: Robert Lever
Editor: Nicolas Gaster
Helena: Stephanie Leonidas
Valentine: Jason Barry
Helena's Father/Prime Minister: Rob Brydon
Joanne, others: Gina McKee
No MPAA rating
Running time -- 101 minutes