This filmic oddity partially benefits but partially suffers from the old mantra of style over substance.
Seldom do you scan the credits to find a director-designer, but in his directorial feature debut that's exactly the dual role that Dave McKean has assumed. As his experience falls mainly in the latter category, this filmic oddity partially benefits but partially suffers from the old mantra of style over substance.
During a teenage temper tantrum, 15-year-old circus kid Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) accidentally wishes her mother dead. Before you know it mum's been hospitalised, and it's at this guilt-ridden point that Helena wakes up in another world. Here we find ourselves inside her unconscious mind, full of bold Jungian archetypes, macabre creatures and lush landscapes.
In turn, her repressed dark side, which McKean and writer Neil Gaiman dub the 'anti-Helena' has entered the real world. This doppelgänger won't return to her rightful place until Helena has aligned the dark and light of her divided self.
For all that the function of this simple plot is to showcase various eye-boggling effects, MirrorMask is a solid coming-of-age allegory with clear parallels to the likes of Alice In Wonderland, The Company of Wolves and Labyrinth. As usual, the message is simple and familiar – be careful what you wish for, because it's going to take a whole lot of hassle to put right.
Its true value lies almost exclusively in the visuals. Billed as the Jim Henson Company comeback, it's fitting that the film begins with a sock-puppet show, but that's the first and last glimpse we see of old-school Henson. Instead, the film has the appearance of a moving painting, with smooth, shiny CGI replacing those distinctive but dated rubber suits.
This works both ways – the strangely under-lit world McKean creates often feels in danger of being hijacked by Fellini-esque clowns, and suffers occasionally from inconsistencies in merging the CGI and human characters.
It's difficult not to believe that had the film been placed in the hands of, say, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the story may have been integrated more successfully. As it is, this is a ravishing visual extravaganza first and a fairy story second.
Puppets, fantasy and comics all in one film.
Moralistic fable or existential dreamscape?
So beautiful. So what?