Highly visual, imaginative, and haunting, this fantasy has a young girl, whose extended family of circus performers is grounded when her mother falls ill mid-performance, retreating into her own self-designed fantasy world to deal with her real-world crisis. Before the mother falls victim to her ailments, we see that the young girl, Helena, detested the warped, eccentric environment that her parents brought her up in, and she escapes through huge chalk drawings that turn any confines into magical, expansive new worlds. Once she realizes that her mother, with whom she had fought with immediately preceding her spell, is dangerously close to death, and that her and her well-meaning, but benign father are utterly impotent in regards to her health, she enters into her patented dream world in search of an answer. Immediately, the radical strangeness of this new environment makes itself apparent; the sky is permanently, impossibly vibrant, freakish creatures with human-like behavior permeate the landscape, and all the actual people are hidden behind expressive masks, wondering why little Helena does not wear one herself. She finds a companion, Valentine, who joins her quest after losing his circus-performer comrades whom he had planned to go on the road with. She finds the local in charge, who informs her, obliquely, that if she captures something called a “Mirrormask,” a remedy for her mother’s life-threatening illness will reveal itself. She then dedicates herself to traversing this unpredictably freakish landscape, with an evil queen (who physically resembles her mother) in hot pursuit, in search of the one possible element in her grasp that can potentially help her real-world mum.
From the first scene, which juxtaposes the rushed behind-the-scenes environment of a circus show with the actual performance itself, it is apparent that the film has a striking and exciting visual palette, one that, inevitably, comes front and center once Helena leaves our world for her imaginary one. From the buildings that follow no realistic architectural patterns, to the amorphous shadows that creep out and turn people to stone, to the wonderfully diverse and physics-defying masks seen on everyone but Helena, the stylized alternate reality never fails to dazzle. There have been many stories that claim to take place in “strange, new worlds” (not just Star Trek) that fail to genuinely evoke a truly foreign, signature environment, even with extensive blue/green-screen effects; in live-action cinema, Mirrormask is unrivaled (even by Sin City, its closest runner-up) in eschewing as many physical and recognizable elements of reality as possible while still managing to tell a concrete, consistent story. The story, which plays as a cross between Labyrinth (young girl goes to strange new world to save family member) and Coraline (young girl ventures to alternate reality and faces bizarro versions of her family), takes second place to the visual splendor on display, and almost becomes too abstract for its own good towards the end. However, the highly intimate subtext of the narrative (every element of the imaginary world is plucked directly from Helena’s own subconscious) keeps the film very personal, and several fascinating twists (Helena helplessly sees her real-life doppelganger acting up in adolescent fury through windows into reality that no one else sees) make Helena’s character development consistently gripping and, surprisingly, fragile and moving. This is helped by an excellent lead performance by Stephanie Leonidas, who injects Helena with complex, overlapping emotions that ambitiously convey the deep-rooted pain of this young girl who may or may not lose her mother. The other performances are either fleeting or cleverly guarded (Valentine only loses his mask twice, briefly), but mention must be given to Gina Mckee, who does a careful balancing act as both Helena’s mother and the evil queen, and The Trip’s Rob Brydon (with his legendary Michael Caine impression), who renders a warm, sympathetic role out of his performance as Helena’s father. Stephen Fry shows up to voice one of the myriad of creatures, but the creature work throughout is so visually and contextually striking (they were designed, in part, by Jim Henson Pictures) that the voices are indistinguishable, and secondary to their appearance and their relationship to the narrative.
Highly Recommended to fans of more dark, ambitious children’s films (this is, deservedly, a strictly PG affair) like the aforementioned Coraline, or Jim Henson productions like Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal. This English production puts American children’s films, and even most American fantasy films, to shame, and is a consistent visual and emotional delight that deserves a more widespread audience on this side of the pond.