Starring: Stephanie Leonidas, Jason Barry, Gina McKee, Rob Brydon
Rated PG for Some Mild Thematic Elements and Scary Images
"Mirrormask," from the minds of Neil Gaiman and artist Dave McKean, is like a cross between Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" and Tarsem's "The Cell." It has the story and approach of the former and the surreal nightmare visions of the latter. Unfortunately, comparing it to those two movies makes it come up short. While it would be unfair to expect every movie to replicate the sheer mastery of "Spirited Away" or the complexity of "The Cell" (especially in a kid's movie), there's no reason that this story couldn't have worked. Alas, the screenplay is a mess, and all we are left with is some fantastic eye candy.
And what eye candy it is! This is like a fantasy artist's scrapbook come to life (literally...the opening credits are designed as such). Animated cats with human faces, stairs and a city straight from the mind of M. C. Escher. This is literally a feast for the eyes. If only it was so for the mind as well.
Helena (Leonidas) is a 15-year-old girl who works at the circus run by her parents. However, she is resentful of her duties, wishing on more than one occasion for a "normal life." After making a particularly ill-advised and hurtful comment towards her mother (McKee), she storms off to perform with a plastic smile. Her mother falls ill shortly thereafter, and when Helena falls asleep, she awakens in a surrealistic nightmare. Her only companion is a reluctant juggler named Valentine (Barry), and together they have to find a way to save the world that she finds herself in.
Don't ask me for any more detail on the plot, because I won't be able to give it to you. I gave up trying to follow it after about a half hour. Fortunately, each scene makes some sort of weird sense out of context (or in a very broad one), unlike "Paprika." So it was entirely possible to just sit back and watch where the story took me.
The acting is, for a movie with such a micro-sized budget, effective. Stephanie Leonidas is a great anchor as the rebellious but ultimately kind-hearted girl. She's got a lot of spunk (unlike most protagonists in this sort of situation, she doesn't freak out when she finds herself living in a dream). Her co-star Jason Barry is also good, but a little over-bearing at times (then again, I had fond memories of the character before I watched it again...). Gina McKee and Rob Brydon do solid jobs in supporting roles.
It's a shame that the screenplay is in such a dire need of a rewrite. The visuals, both in terms of what we see and how we see it, are so vivid and unusual that I'm tempted to recommend the film solely on that basis. Almost, but not quite.