The fantasy film MirrorMask offers the spectacle of two creative geniuses daring the death-defying leap from one medium to another. Writer Neil Gaiman and artist Dave McKean justly won acclaim for the comic book series Sandman, which seemingly drew on every storytelling style in world history to recount the doings of the Lord of Dreams. With MirrorMask, director/designer McKean and screenwriter Gaiman attempt a comparable kind of modern fable, but its innovative imagery runs amok and leaves the narrative lost in a cloud of fairy dust.
Like Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz, MirrorMask recounts one girl's journey to another world. When a circus performer (Gina McKee) falls ill, her guilt-ridden daughter, Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), finds herself in a topsy-turvy cityscape that resembles her own fanciful drawings. In a land where everyone wears masks, Helena seeks out the mysterious MirrorMask to end the conflict between a comatose queen of light and a tyrannical queen of shadow (both played by McKee).
Once you get through the early circus scenes, MirrorMask offers an endless gallery of bizarre creations, such as housecat-sized sphinxes with rainbow wings and the flat faces of middle-aged men. Working with the Jim Henson Co., McKean crafts so much surreal whimsy that he makes Tim Burton look as dull as an insurance actuary. MirrorMask soon offers too much weirdness for the mind to absorb, though -- like having an acid trip at an antique shop.
Whether offering impossibly beautiful places or thrillingly grotesque monsters, fantasy worlds need to be, on some level, attractive: What's the point of a piece of escapism if it doesn't offer somewhere worth escaping to? MirrorMask's dream world looks like the last place you'd want to visit and never conveys a sense of its rules or makes a firm connection to the real world.
Gaiman pens some wry dialogue and character moments, but the human relationships get lost amid the bird-headed apes and rooms made of clocks. MirrorMask has creativity to spare, but comes up surprisingly short on magic. Opens Fri., Sept. 30. Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. 2 Stars.