- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 29, 2005

Here’s a switch. After a summer of box office blockbusters based on comic books, a pair of legendary comic book creators have released a movie — not based on a comic book.

“MirrorMask,” written by the resurrector of DC Comics’ magical hero Sandman, Neil Gaiman, and directed by mixed media artist Dave McKean (who often illustrates Mr. Gaiman’s work), is an exploration of teen angst and guilt set within a surreal, sepia-toned fantasy conjured by the visual effects of the Jim Henson Co.

The 15-year-old Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), a modern day amalgam of L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy and Lewis Carroll’s Alice, prefers to draw rather than juggle in the family circus, and clashes with her mother (Gina McKee) about this yearning to just be a part of the real world. Helena blames herself when her mom ends up in a coma and her father (Rob Brydon), unable to keep his team of performers on the road while caring for his wife, almost goes broke.

A dream — or is it? — transports her to the Dark Lands, a golden-hued place populated by masked citizens and disjointed collage creatures that have been a staple of Mr. McKean’s art style over the years. Helena quickly learns that the City of Light is in danger of being consumed by the Queen of the Shadows (Miss McKee doing a slick Maleficent imitation) and her minions, as its keeper, the White Queen (Miss McKee again; get the picture?), has pulled a Sleeping Beauty. Only the power of the missing MirrorMask can revive her and return Helena to her home.

Mr. McKean’s warped sense of design reaches a pinnacle when a group of female makeover dolls sing a Carpenters’ song while turning our heroine into a Shadow Princess.

For a comic book lover, seeing Mr. McKean’s art coming to life on the screen — schools of flying fish, a town of winding staircases, pigeon apes, attacks from flocks of batlike face huggers and dissolving, geometrically challenged monsters are among the highlights — is breathtaking. His decision to select his own team of animators and micromanage every frame has paid off in meticulously accurate results. Fans of Mr. McKean will especially appreciate the sphinxes with creepily attached human faces derived from his 1991 series “Cages.”

However, despite its great visual power — an enlarged still taken at random from the Dark Lands adventure could hang in a museum — the movie is undermined by its telegraphed story and woefully abrupt ending.

Thanks to a limited theatrical release, “MirrorMask” is unlikely to find a mass audience, but the inevitable DVD release will take an honorable place next to the likes of “Labyrinth” and “The City of Lost Children” in family entertainment rooms.

**1/2

TITLE: “MirrorMask”

RATING: PG (some mild thematic elements and scary images)

CREDITS: Written by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. Directed by Dave McKean. Music composed by Iain Ballamy.

RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes

WEB SITE:www.mirrormask.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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