Accidentally traveling to a fantasy world and using every ounce of her brain, brawn and instincts in order to stop an evil queen and her mysterious minions from destroying said fantasy world and spilling over into the real world with of course disastrous consequences for all of humanity seems like an excessively arduous way for an adolescent to discover her inner confidence and ultimately accept herself and her family for who they are, but it's a lot more fun to watch, especially when the fantasy world is the vivid and visually imaginative brainchild of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean.
Written by Gaiman and directed by McKean from a story the pair conceived while surrounded by Jim Henson artifacts, 'Mirrormask' is a strikingly original visual feast that tempers Gaiman's richly textured Gothic style with touches of Henson's humor and plenty of the weird and wondrous creations we've come to expect from Henson's creature shop. Talking sphinxes that look like hairless winged cats wearing oversized human masks roam around acting sinister but turn out to be gullible nimrods unable to even answer their own riddles, massive spiders with eyeballs for bodies spy on our heroine, flying monkey-birds with removable beaks and a propensity for the name 'Bob' appear just in the nick of time and that's just a small sampling of beautifully bizarre freaks and eye candy that abound throughout the film.
Unfortunately the same can't be said for the story, which takes more than just inspiration from the work of Henson and other fantasy filmmakers. Fifteen-year-old Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) wants to run away from her circus family and be a normal girl, but ends up being pulled into a fantasy world of the drawings and sketches that adorn her walls and occupy her imagination (as opposed to running away from a baby brother and being pulled into a fantasy world comprised of the stuffed animals a la 'Labyrinth').
But this is a fantasy more sinister than Henson's 'Labyrinth' or 'Dark Crystal,' a world where everyone wears masks, the beloved Queen of Light is dying and The Shadows (also known as The Nothing to fans of 'The Neverending Story') are rapidly swallowing up the once beautiful landscape and everything else in their path. Helena must journey through the Dark Lands with the aid of a quirky and not entirely trustworthy sidekick named Valentine (Jason Barry) to the find the legendary Mirrormask, stop the evil Queen of Shadows and return to her own world before the doppelganger who's supplanted her ruins Helena's life and permanently takes her place in the real world.
Because of the weaknesses in 'Mirrormask's' story and the endearing performances in the films it so liberally plunders, the actors are doubly burdened. Leonidas does well enough with both adolescent angst and heroic resolve, but lacks the plucky charisma that softens the edges and made her predecessors' performances so memorable. A colorful cohort would help, but amid so many mystical creations, she gets stuck with Valentine, who's too stubborn and shifty to be truly interesting, and the chemistry between Barry and Leonidas is dubious at best.
Fortunately, there are plenty of eye-popping visual effects to keep audiences glued to the screen. The film's fantasy world is unlike anything set to celluloid. It's as if McKean and Gaiman (both extraordinary artists and illustrators in their own right) crafted a wildly imaginative Gothic landscape, then let Salvador Dali run amok with a little supervision from Jim Henson. The animation and blue screen effects are astounding, and there are moments of near visual and aural perfection creepy robotic dolls singing 'Where Do We Begin' like a nightmarish lullaby while dressing up Helena in all the trappings of the dark side, among others along with doses of quirky humor that brilliantly mix imagination and absurdity. If Gaiman and McKean can ever get their writing up to the same levels as their visual artistry, expect great things.