Reviewed By Scott Weinberg
Posted 01/29/05 05:33:11

"Be prepared to be dazzled."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2005 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean's "MirrorMask" is a stunningly cool example of how to take inspiration from a handful of sources...while somehow still forging something astonishingly unique, challenging and magical. It's absolutely one of the most original fantasy films I've seen in years, and I wouldn't be surprised to see "MirrorMask" gracing my year-end Top Ten list.

If I offered the opinion that MirrorMask is an amalgamation of Alice in Wonderland, The NeverEnding Story, The Wizard of Oz, Labyrinth, M.C. Escher & Tim Burton, you'd probably be pretty intrigued...if not all that convinced of the film's unique vision and startling presentation. But despite clear "inspiration" from these and numerous other sources, MirrorMask still stands as a powerfully original composition. It's playful, dark and mysterious. It's got a few simple little morals, it's amazingly gorgeous to look at, and it's effortlessly enthralling for 90-some straight minutes. Much of the movie feels comfortably familiar...yet it's certainly unlike anything you've ever seen before.

Perhaps a bit too bizarre for fans of the mainstream fantasy movies, this movie is an absolute cult classic waiting to happen. Equal parts wild adventure and lyrical allegory, MirrorMask puts many of its genre brethren to shame. It's not afraid to delve into true "weirdness," and this approach also serves as a sort of filtering process: make it through the first 30 minutes without rolling your eyes or scratching your head, and you're well on your way to falling in love with this adorably insane movie.

As the film opens, we're visitors at an eclectic little circus show. Our focal point is 15-year-old Helena, whose Mum & Dad run the Fellini-esque affair. More than a little weary of the circus life, Helena vents her displeasure by way of a rather unsavory argument with her mother. The verbal sparring ends with the most regrettable of childish exclamations: she wishes her mother were dead. A few short minutes later, Mom collapses backstage and is rushed to the hospital.

Mother's ailment is never referred to in specific terms, but it's pretty clear that her medical situation is pretty dire indeed. Racked with guilt and overwhelmed with concern for her Mom, Helena falls asleep one dark & rainy night....and awakens to find herself in an alternate world full of bizarre creatures, stunningly alien landscapes, and (of course) one clear mission: she must recover a magical charm that will allow the White Queen to awaken from her coma-like slumber.

To focus on the specific details of Helena's arcane adventures would undoubtedly rob you of discovering much of MirrorMask's beauty, and much of this movie is about the sheer joy of discovery. On the surface the movie works as a rousing A-to-B-to-C quest adventure, but it's mounted with such a dizzy devotion to unpredictable weirdness...this movie would never be produced by Hollywood. Ever. The symbols, metaphors and morals are clearly constructed and astutely realized. MirrorMask is a movie for children (and children-at-heart) who don't appreciate being talked down to.

The special effects technology used to bring this world to life are nothing short of dazzling. Computer-generated material is melded seamlessly with phenomenal practical effects (as if you'd expect anything less from the mad geniuses at Jim Henson Studios), and all of the astonishing bells & whistles are built upon a foundation of sincere heart, wit and unceasing creativity. The human performers are uniformly excellent across the board; the flawless lead performance by young Stephanie Leonidas is an anchor that's absolutely integral to something this fanciful. Without a true focal point of actual humanity, MirrorMask would be little more than a flashy fireworks display. That this wonderful actress commands your constant attention, despite being surrounded by some of the most peculiar creatures and locations ever created, is a testament to both the performer and the filmmakers. With a less talented actress, MirrorMask would still be quite cool, but it just wouldn't have the same heart and soul.

Frankly, I'm not a good enough writer to adequately describe all the wild magic that Gaiman and McKean have concocted here. Suffice to say that MirrorMask had me wide-eyed and practically hypnotized...kinda like we all were the first time we saw The Wizard of Oz. It's a movie that will undoubtedly have many viewers scratching their heads in disbelief, because MirrorMask is as bizarre as it is beautiful. Essentially we're talking about a film that's bound to become an "acquired taste" - which in movie terminology means "cult classic." Personally, I cannot wait to get a copy of the DVD and dissect the thing bit by bit. I only hope that many of you end up feeling the same way.

Somewhat beholden to some of the finest fantasy stories ever conceived, yet still more than fresh and unique enough to stand on its own, "MirrorMask" is one of the most thrillingly addictive adventures I've had in years. Hats off to superlative artists Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean for constructing something this endearingly odd and utterly enjoyable. Movies like this give me renewed hope for movies in general, and for that I'm very appreciative indeed.

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