MirrorMask is the mirror image of most CGI fantasies aimed at the lucrative audience of kinetic teenage boys. The tale of an adolescent girl struggling to understand unfamiliar emotions that threaten to overwhelm her, this live-action animated feature seems to target a niche audience of arty, introspective 12- to 15-year-old females.
Not that viewers need be moody and mercurial to appreciate the film's surreal dreamscapes inspired by illustrator-turned-director Dave McKean, or the queer chimeras conjured by the Jim Henson Creature Shop. On the contrary, Neil Gaiman's script is riddled with waggery and exudes warmth and good humor. Nevertheless, it helps to harbor a certain empathy for developmental psychology, with emphasis on parent-daughter relationships, body image and self-esteem, to thoroughly appreciate this movie.
MirrorMask's phantasmagoria, a journey into the subconscious where our heroine confronts her fears, is framed by a quirky conceit. Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), daughter of penurious carnies, wants to run away from the circus, frustrated by their nomadic existence and, one comes to understand, absence of a proper boyfriend. One night before a performance, she quarrels with her mother (Gina McKee), who collapses backstage as Helena juggles with her father (Rob Brydon) in the ring. Stricken with guilt when she learns her mum suffers from a life-threatening condition, Helena falls into an allegorical sleep punctuated with enough puns and parables to keep a psychoanalyst in the office past five.
Her dreams have a EuroDisney quality-Helena finds herself wandering the cobblestones of a medieval city where schools of fish swim in the sepia-tinted ether-but that's only fitting, since MirrorMask was filmed in London and Brighton. Her guide, a wisecracking harlequin named Valentine (Jason Barry), reinforces the renaissance-fair ambience. Everyone wears a mask, even the cat-like gryphons wandering the streets, who sport sneering human faces.
In short order, Helena is kidnapped and delivered to the Prime Minister (her father in a particularly fey papier-mâché vizard), who is desperate to discover the charm that will awaken the Queen of Light (her mother) from a soporific spell that has brought a pall upon the kingdom. Helena vows to solve the puzzle, a task that requires her to journey ever deeper into her conflicted psyche.
Dorothy had Oz, Alice had Wonderland, and Helena has the Dark Lands, a baroque forest populated by floating stone giants (Henry Moore at the Macy's parade), acrobatic monkey-birds and the Queen of Shadows (her mother again), a designing harpy in black tulle who must be obeyed. The noir queen wants to reprogram her prodigal daughter, who not only resembles Helena but is equally rebellious, and she's prepared to unleash her considerable wrath if that's what it takes to discipline willful children.
All this teenage angst (Valentine turns out to be more charlatan than harlequin), combined with McKean and Gaiman's art-school sensibilities, won't win over the boys in the back rows who'd rather be home watching DVDs of Sin City, but MirrorMask is winsome in the tradition of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, earlier Henson productions. The movie offers several arresting scenes, the chief one being the transformation of Helena from virgin to vamp by animatronic jack-in-the-box stylists, performed to a synthesized cover of the Carpenters' "Close to You." McKee delivers a wickedly witchy performance as the Queen of Shadows, newcomer Leonidas is the most appealing ingénue since Audrey Tatou, and Barry as Valentine exudes charisma despite that he is required to act behind a pound of makeup.
The Brits have an eccentric side that lends their animated creations, from Blue Meanies to Wallace and Gromit, a kooky capriciousness. MirrorMask fits snugly into this tradition.