As screenwriter Neil Gaiman tells the story, Mirrormask came about when Lisa Henson contacted him about creating a new movie in the mode of Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal—two Jim Henson fantasy features that failed at the box office but have reached family-classic on VHS and DVD. It seems appropriate, then, that Mirrormask feels so much like those two movies: episodic, detached, and lacking in drive, but packed with amazing, hallucinatory dream-imagery that makes real dreams look flat by comparison.
Stephanie Leonidas stars as a artistic teenager whose rebellion against her circus-performer parents has led her to become possibly the only girl in cinema history who wants to run away from the circus and join real life. The story doesn't make nearly enough of this twist, though, as when Leonidas' mother (Gina McKee) falls sick, Leonidas blames herself all the way out of real life and into a phantasmagorical vision out of her own artwork. There, a beautiful white queen (McKee again) lies in a coma, the victim of the treacherous daughter (Leonidas again) of the evil dark queen (McKee a third time). The symbolic value of all this lies oppressively over the story, as Leonidas sets out to save the mother-figure she loves and resist the one she resents, while her own snotty doppelgänger takes over her life, threatening to do more damage unless Leonidas can return to the surface. It's conceptually clever, but overly pat and heavy-handed. Still, it serves as an intricate frame for the CGI visuals created by Gaiman's frequent partner-in-creation Dave McKean, a visual artist best known for his vibrant collage covers to Gaiman's Sandman comics and for the densely lyrical comics series Cages.
In his feature-directorial debut, McKean brings all the variety and complexity of his comics art to the screen, and the results are rarely less than gasp-inducing. The rich, layered colors, depth, and fine details of his fantasy world are amazing in their own right, but the bizarre characters—from two intertwined floating giants to a flock of vicious-looking little human-faced sphinxes—are breathtaking on a whole new scale. Like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, Mirrormask may feel a bit quaint and a bit stiff to adult audiences, but it needs to be seen on the big screen, then watched repeatedly on DVD. Like Henson's best work, it pushes emphatically at the boundaries of cinematic imagination, and makes itself a spectacular home on their furthest borders.