The film Mirrormask is the result of an engaging collaboration between noted fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, the artist Dave McKean, who created the covers for his award-winning comic series The Sandman and Jim Henson Productions, with each leaving a clear imprint on the final result. It is a rather simple tale of a young girl's entry into her own dream world on a quest to find the artifact of the story's name, which is something of a talisman representing her struggle to cope with an unusual but loving family whose livelihood is derived from a traveling circus in Great Britain. Unlike many an American film in this arena, Mirrormask has a decidedly European tone, which is somewhat akin to the difference between extremely sweet pastry as we know it versus the more delicate, subtle French variety, where the overall flavor is more gauzy and aftertaste is as important as the first note the taste buds hear.
The ultimate star of the show is the special effects, which are unique, yet also Grimm-like in tone. One can clearly see the Henson effect, yet the real imagery is pure McKean. He tends to work in collages of found objects such as buttons, animal skulls and string, as well as abstractly-layered components used to describe faces and scenery. In conjunction with the neatly-rendered CGI, the total atmosphere thereby developed is memorable. The connection between emotional masks and the actual variety employed throughout is almost too prominent, but if not for the possibly frightening intensity, it would be a children's movie, so that simple device is a viable characteristic rather than a weakness.
Helena's journey is obviously a loose definition of coming to terms with her unusual family (both biological & extended), her mother's brief but serious spate with an illness and defining her own personality, the framework being familiar enough that the narrative is readily grasped, despite the bizarre art direction. The struggle for control between two warring fantasy realms is "mirrored" by her vying towards equilibrium with her family and obvious talents as an artist and performer. The dialogue is often a treat, as when a circus member whose English is less than perfect says, "We are rats sinking a leaving ship." It is also the case that there is clearly a strong and loving bond within the family, so much of the drive lies in Helena's bid to shape herself within that framework, rather than one of having to defend herself against a dysfunctional backdrop. This is refreshing in a world where excessive conflict blankets the finer points of too many recent films.
Stephanie Leonidas does a very fine turn as Helena, the hesitant yet also determined center of the story. She is undergoing the usual growing pains teenaged girls have, yet it takes some interesting paths, since she performs in the circus, as well as drawing in a scratchy yet intriguing style that functions as part of the motivating engine. Of course, from the cleverly-shaped opening credits forward, such elements come from McKean's imagination and her drawings are his eccentric work applied in three dimensions rather than the usual two. She makes it easy to believe that the odd creations are actually hers, as she is well-cast, almost resembling some of the exotic people in the pictures.
Gina McKee plays triple roles as her mother and as the queens of the two dream kingdoms, with an engaging warmth in the former part and as a particularly intimidating dark queen in one of the latter two. Rob Brydon, as her father and the light-side kingdom's prime minister, is affable and convincing; he is clearly a family man who has a certain working-class charisma one might expect from an otherwise regular joe who runs a circus and is happy about it. Jason Barry's peculiar turn as Valentine, the eccentric character who accompanies Helena through her main journey, is part jester and part warped philosopher. Both his responses to Helena's accidental straight lines and stylized physical expression that reach past the mask that covers the upper half of his face at all times come directly from the classic arena of stage work. Although none of the roles come across as Peter-O'Toole-style trailblazers, the fact that all involved pull them off so solidly that you scarcely notice them working is a testament to what a talented cast they really are. Even those in the secondary roles do fine turns that flow well.
While it is something of a low-key work and not a major brain-teaser as such, it has the attraction of being somehow delicate, not unlike origami or scrimshaw. The scene where a group of CGI-rendered wind-up dancers perform a surreal, pitch-shifted rendition of Close To You is a scene apart from the norm by several strides. Elements such as this, the librarian made of books or the vaguely-threatening, human-faced cat creatures known as Sphinxes set it apart from less original films of its general type.
There are easy corollaries to be drawn between Mirrormask and Lewis Carroll's Wonderland books, although it is more a case of their being representatives of a genre than the former being a vague clone of the latter. It could be rather unsettling to younger children, as it is sometimes daunting in appearance beyond more mainstream cartoons or fairy tales and presents certain relationships that are too adult to be readily absorbed by someone who was younger than about 11 or 12, one could estimate. However, beyond that, it definitely has a certain swirling appeal that clearly results from having been carefully crafted by people with an off-the-beaten-path vision. If you have enjoyed films such as The Island of Lost Children, Dark City or Labyrinth (another Henson-generated offering), Mirrormask will take you to a similar place of merit. The key word here would be elegant. Its a real Fabergé egg of a fairy tale and one well worth sharing.