It's not often you feel compelled to recommend a film almost entirely on the basis of its art direction, but that's the case with MirrorMask, luscious evidence that the look of modern fantasy cinema can amount to more than bald-faced Tim Burton swipes arriving 15 years after the fact.
Sprung from the minds of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean who, together and separately, have helped define the course of late-20th-century comic art the movie plays like an extended tour through a graphic novel that couldn't sit on a bookshelf any longer and had to stir to three-dimensional life. It's an appropriate image for a tale in which books can be seen to flutter around a room like trapped sparrows or turn into magic carpets at the drop of a cross word. (Literary criticism, see, makes them want to up and fly home.)
This and other surreal activity takes place in a dreamscape discovered (or was it conjured?) by Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), a young English girl determined to reject the nomadic lifestyle of her circus-performer parents. When her mother (Gina McKee) falls suddenly ill, Helena enters an even stranger reality in which her pubescent inner crises play out in the form of a dark fairy tale. A wicked queen (McKee again) presides over a realm that's been plunged into shadow, awaiting a savior who can find the key to returning the light.
The few characters who qualify as "human" betray a distinct resemblance to the figures in Helena's daily life, making the film an obvious successor to The Wizard of Oz. But this Jim Henson Co. production is just as much Labyrinth re-imagined as a museum piece. The atmosphere of cultquest-flick whimsy is spot-on, though the visual conception is miles ahead. Cat-like creatures with human faces prowl a landscape where everyone seems to be either wearing a mask or looking for one. Light refracts weirdly off high towers; the onscreen perspective distorts around the edge before giving way to silent-movie luminescence. Marvelous.
The movie's only major fault is that its two worlds aren't properly distinguished: The introductory scenes in the circus are framed almost as weirdly as the dreamy digressions. And a close reading of the basic scene elements indicates that the entire project may have looked like a cheap European TV special before it got to postproduction but that's like surmising that Hero wasn't especially hot in the storyboarding stage. Who cares? It's what ends up on the screen that counts. Lap up MirrorMask, and brace yourself for the inevitable raft of imitations.