Although the plot and motifs are largely borrowed from "The Wizard of Oz" and "Alice in Wonderland," there is something oddly intoxicating about Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman's coming-of-age fantasy "MirrorMask." The teenager's journey through a nightmarish reverie presents hallucinogenic imagery that simultaneously dulls the senses and hot-wires the imagination, but it never fully engages emotionally.
Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) is a creative 15-year-old prone to performing sock puppet vignettes with the socks still on her feet. Her parents run a traveling circus in which she juggles, sells tickets and does whatever else needs doing. While kids with more conventional lives fantasize about running off to join the circus, Helena would like nothing better than to trade hers in for something more settled.
She pours her angst into strange drawings that resemble the ink-splattered illustrations of Ralph Steadman crossed with the Surrealist paintings of Joan Miro. After she and her mother, Joanne (Gina McKee), exchange harsh words, Joanne falls seriously ill. Helena's father, Morris (Rob Brydon), tries to hold the circus together, and Helena stays with a dotty aunt in a decrepit apartment in Brighton.
While waiting for her mother to undergo a dangerous operation, Helena falls asleep, and her vivid imagination and guilt lead her to a fantastical dreamscape inspired by her drawings. In the Dark Lands, fish swim through the air against a backdrop of tea-stained parchment skies, rejected books float themselves back to the library and, as in the circus, everyone wears a mask.
Helena acquires a companion in Valentine, a juggler who shows her the ropes but wonders how she knows what she's feeling without a mask. They encounter odd, hybrid creatures such as creepy cats with triangular video-screen human faces that talk in riddles and doublespeak.
As in Oz, the denizens of the Dark Lands resemble people from Helena's waking life. The Prime Minister (Brydon) looks like her father, and the rival Dark and White Queens (both McKee) look like her mother. The kingdom is deeply divided into a city of light and a land of shadows, and Helena learns that finding the MirrorMask is her only way back to the real world.
Director McKean (who also designed the film) shot most of it against a blue screen, then added the computer-generated creations. As out-of-the-ordinary as the Dark Lands and its unusual inhabitants are, the realization of them fails to transcend the rather predictable story McKean conceived with screenwriter Gaiman (a novelist and comic-book writer with a large cult following).
The scene that comes closest to matching the dark ebullience of the visuals features Leonidas (who resembles a young Helena Bonham Carter) getting a makeover from a group of patchwork automatons while they sing Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Close to You." Undercurrents of a sexual awakening produce a subtext and energy lacking in the rest of the film.
Gaiman and McKean never successfully connect the kitchen-sink emotions of the film's real world to Helena's journey through the fantasy world. While a boon to special effects and low-cost filmmaking, digital images still largely project a coolness that keeps our feelings at arm's length. Still, even with its flaws, elements of "MirrorMask" are impressive, and it's difficult to shake the memory of those airborne fish, self-returning books and inquisitive kitties.
MPAA rating: PG for some mild thematic elements and scary images
Times guidelines: A little slow for small children
Destination Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films present a production from the Jim Henson Co. Designer-director Dave McKean. Producer Simon Moorhead. Screenplay by Neil Gaiman, story by Gaiman and McKean. Director of photography Antony Shearn. Editor Nicolas Gaster. Music Iain Ballamy. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
At Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223; and Edwards University Town Center 6, 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine, (949) 854-8818.