MirrorMask is not just the first cinematic collaboration between comic-book geniuses Neil Gaiman (writer) and Dave McKean (artist/director) but a throwback of sorts (courtesy of the Jim Henson Company, appropriately enough) to PG-rated fantasies of the 80s like Labyrinth and The Neverending Story.
This is to say it’s about an alienated young person transported, during a time of strife, into a magical unknown world. Here, said youngster is Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), daughter of circus performers, who, once transported, must find the titular mask to save the day, etc.
This being 2005, she enters a world created largely on computers, but the film’s relatively small budget gives the images a homespun, flickering, storybook quality, more dependent on design than technology.
Some of these designs contain amazing creatures and costumes, based around a mask motif. They also studiously imitate McKean’s art work — to the point of creating the uneasy feeling that McKean is paying tribute to himself. If the story engaged us beyond the usual Alice in Wonderland lawlessness, this might not be noticable.
But the chemistry between Helena and her requisite scheming male guide Valentine (Jason Barry) is mild, and certain elements — cornball humor and a cheesy score — could’ve been left to the film’s bygone counterparts.
Still, the family audience could — and often does — find a lot worse. And MirrorMask does have moments (a brief scene of flight, for example) and images, like Helena looking out at herself from the inside of childhood drawings tacked to her wall, where it leaps out beyond the realm of a picture-book. But most of it would be better off on the page.
Opens September 30 at Landmark Sunshine