The team behind Mirrormask certainly possesses a sterling imaginative pedigree. Director/co-writer Dave McKean and co-writer Neil Gaiman are a long-standing team, responsible for the inspired comic book series Sandman. The film is also a product of Muppets creator Jim Henson's production studio, prompting hopeful comparisons to that company's mischievous children's masterpiece, Labyrinth. The film shares its basic premise with the Henson work -- be careful what you wish for -- and draws heavily on the eerie visual sensibilities of McKean. But it lacks narrative conviction.
The film begins with family conflict, as the young heroine Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) tries bitterly to declare her independence from her parents' dream of owning a circus. Helena tells her mom to drop dead, and when, shortly after, her mother succumbs to an unnamed illness, a wellspring of guilt opens, which sends Helena tripping toward a rabbit hole.
The dreamscape that constitutes the majority of the film is an intricately textured place, but it wraps itself around Helena and her traveling companion Valentine in a gauzy, insubstantial fashion. The film often relies on the boxy graphics the Discovery Channel might use to recreate a dinosaur, albeit with a much more playful edge.
There are moments where McKean's imagination steps out of the background and grabs our attention, most memorably in a scene where beaked gorillas save Helena from a cloud of inky eyeball spiders. But it fails to maintain this visual interest.
The main problem is the fact that the film does not recognize a guiding principle for the "Wonderland" film genre -- that the world in which the characters are living must be defined by its own whimsical logic. The film succeeds at this in an early scene, when Helena and Valentine escape a room by insulting a pair of books. The injured tomes decide to fly back to the library and our heroes get to hop a ride.
Sadly, Mirrormask very rarely allows invention to run its course. More often it forces the protagonists into an awkward no-man's-land, where the rush of new and strange situations is dulled by uninspired riddles or flat coincidence.
This film feels most like a stocking stuffer for fans of the Gaiman/McKean aesthetic. So unless you're a huge fan, don't bother with this droll fantasyland.
Opening Friday, November 4th