Produced in conjunction with The Jim Henson Company, director Dave McKean and writer Neil Gaiman’s Mirrormask is an amalgamation of so many disparate artistic influences that any hint of originality ultimately stems less from creative invention than imaginative synthesis. Combining elements of Dali surrealism, Cirque du Soleil, Eyes Wide Shut‘s anonymous orgy scene, The Brothers Quay’s mannequin-infatuated stop-motion shorts, Adam Jones’s videos for Tool, The Wizard of Oz, two prior Henson projects (Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal), and Gaiman’s own Sandman comic series, this children’s fantasy about the bond between parents and children is a stylistic smorgasbord bloated with literary and cinematic influences. That it nonetheless feels somewhat thin, however, speaks less to its bountiful visual wonders than the meagerness of its familiar, perfunctory narrative.
Plot-wise, Mirrormask shares much in common with Stephen King and Peter Straub’s The Talisman, as both chart the quests of young children into extraordinary alternate realities (populated by doppelgangers of themselves and their loved ones) where they’re charged with finding a magic amulet that will cure their dying mother and her Queen alter ego. Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), in an ironic twist of childhood yearnings, wants to run away from her life in the circus and live in the “real world,” but after wishing that her mother (Gina McKee) was dead—and then having her mom fall mysteriously ill—she’s transported to a strange dreamscape of mask-wearing humans and monsters sprung from the fanciful sketches posted on her bedroom wall. Accompanied by a juggler named Valentine (Jason Barry), Helena travels from the City of Light to the Dark Lands to find the titular face-gear, which will not only save her perishing mother but will prevent the Queen of the Shadows’s runaway princess daughter—who’s Helena’s Bizzaro World flip-side—from destroying the kingdom in a wave of virulent gloom.
McKean shoots his film with gauzy sepia tones and an iris-like effect in which most of the screen is framed by a smoky black border, and his pastiche-heavy visual schemata—from hybrid beasts including gorilla-doves and human-faced sphinxes to the melding of Gaiman-esque hand-drawn 2-D and CGI artwork—has a trancelike beauty that’s far from prosaic. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Helena’s journey, which is so busy piling on creature-tastic marvels that it fails to properly invest the necessary care on its story’s emotional core. McKean’s graphic novel-come-to-life eventually concludes that the key to achieving mother-daughter harmony—stemming from an understanding that kids need their freedom and parents need to be somewhat controlling and protective—is achievable by looking within one’s self. More often than not, though, Mirrormask is so busy gazing at its own sumptuous exterior that its portrait of adolescent maturation and familial reconciliation winds up being frustratingly skin-deep.