Mirrormask (Sony Pictures, 2005)

Mirrormask, Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman's joint venture with Jim Henson Productions, is an offbeat, charming film that fans of all three will likely adore. The film revolves around Helena, a girl on the cusp of adolescence who's living what would be a dream come true for many kids: she works for a circus. However, Helena longs to live a "normal" life, inevitably leading to conflict with her parents, who are the proprietors of this quirky, homespun circus.

Life takes a sudden downward turn for Helena when, in the wake of a heated argument between the two, her mother falls ill, curtailing the circus' tour and fostering one heck of a self-imposed guilt trip for the girl. And then, on the night of her mother's surgery, things take a turn for the decidedly strange when Helena seemingly awakens from sleep to find herself in another world, alone, and drawn into a conflict not of her own conscious making.

It's that this point that Mirrormask takes off and begins to truly shine. This new world, the Dark Lands, is drawn, quite literally, from Helena's fertile imagination, and thus from that of Dave McKean. Using a variety of media, McKean has rendered the Dark Lands in exquisite detail, and, with help from the folks at Henson, populated it with a bizarre mix of mask-wearing humans and fantastical critters (the winged, human-faced cats with a taste for books are delightfully creepy). Imagine McKean's Sandman covers come to life and you'll have some vague sense of the sheer otherness of Mirrormask's dream world.

By comparison to the richness of the film's visuals, the actual narrative structure is far more simple and straightforward: Helena is on a hero's quest to mend wrongs and set the world aright. It's a plot very familiar in form to fantasy fans, if turned on its head a bit by being rendered within a dream with visuals such as Mirrormask's. In a nutshell: the balance between the worlds of light and dark has been disrupted by someone eager to escape both lands, and the queen of light lays in a deathlike sleep while darkness overtakes her lands. She must be awakened, or both worlds will be destroyed.

Helena and a newfound companion, fellow juggler Valentine, race through the land to find the charm necessary to reverse the sleep -- the titular Mirrormask -- before they can be found by the queen of dark or the perpetrator can cut off Helena's return to the real world. If there's occasionally a certain lack of cohesiveness to the plot (why does Valentine leave Helena's side when they've nearly succeeded? Is the dream Helena's . . . or her mother's, as the latter asserts within the dream?), it plays well enough into the film's overall dreamlike quality. Dreams are rarely straightforward, why should this one be any different?

Viewers have seen this kind of heroic theme before, done on a variety of scales, but Gaiman's wit and the unique setting prevent the plot from succumbing to mundanity. Though on occasion, the fantastical surroundings and creatures threaten to overwhelm, or at least diminish, the characters' actions and emotions.

Stephanie Leonidas is luminous as Helena, a perfect combination of wide-eyed innocence and steely resolve just a hair's breadth from adulthood. Her Helena is both likable and believable, whether she's petulant or regretful. Gina McKee also gives a fine performance in her triple role as Helena's mother and the two queens (both aspects of her own personality as seen through the lens of Helena's eyes). The small supporting cast is also solid, if largely off screen (look for a quirky cameo by Stephen Fry).

Mirrormask turned out to be an intriguing experiment by two artists who enjoy a new challenge, one that mostly succeeds, though it will likely have limited appeal among general audiences more used to traditional animation or fantasy on a more epic scale, viewers who might not see the beauty of Helena's very personal quest, or who might miss the story for the scenery.

[April Gutierrez]