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This elaborate special-effects exercise from the Jim Henson Company obviously aspires to be a visionary fairy-tale–a kind of contemporary version of “Alice in Wonderland,” with shards of “The Wizard of Oz” strewn about as well. But the only real wonderment attached to the extravagantly high-tech “MirrorMask” comes from puzzling over why anyone would have expended so much time, money and energy making it. An empty white screen would have been more entertaining than this dull, pretentious, technically imaginative but nonetheless unattractive misfire.

Reversing the old saw about kids wanting to run away to the circus, Neil Gaiman’s script centers on Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), a young woman who wants to leave her family’s little traveling road-show–which, in the few scenes we see of it, looks like a cross between a bargain-basement Cirque de Soleil and a really bad imitation of a Fellini movie–and become a normal person. But when her mother Joanne (Gina McKee) suddenly falls ill and her father Morris (Rob Brydon) may be forced to close the show down, Helena takes it upon herself to travel to the mysterious Dark Lands, where, “Oz”-like, she encounters figures who look oddly like those she left behind in the “real” world (as well as lots of weird CGI things and a sporadically helpful juggler named Valentine, played with what looks like a cardboard box over his head by Jason Barry) and discovers that her own malicious doppelganger has escaped her unhappy existence and taken her place back home. Helena must locate the titular device, which–we’re told–she’ll be able to use not only to free herself from imprisonment by her double’s wicked mother the Queen of Shadows (McKee again) but also revive the Queen of Light (again McKee), who’s suffering from some sort of “Sleeping Beauty” sickness–and thereby save her mother, too.

The moral of all this, of course, is that there’s no place like home, and one should always appreciate the blessings that exist right under your own nose. But in this case the movie that delivers the message shows plenty of visual imagination but is totally devoid of charm, wit or emotional resonance. Simply put, the only element that stands out here–the admittedly striking images–are cold and antiseptic, largely bleached of color and so anxious to look bizarre and unreal that they distance you from the characters rather than making them endearing and sympathetic. Even as it tries desperately to engage the eye, “MirrorMask” fails utterly to touch the heart. And as has happened so often in the past with movies that offered splashy surfaces without bothering to offer anything beneath them, it comes to seem increasingly vacuous and irritating as it drones on. It runs only 96 minutes but ends up feeling twice that long. In this unfeeling environment, the human beings onscreen necessarily suffer. Leonidas and McKee seem as plastic as most of the sets and figures they interact with, while Brydon appears understandably flustered and out of sorts throughout. Even at that, he’s positively personable beside Barry, whose Valentine is a flat, dyspeptic downer (and who doesn’t come off a lot better when he makes his inevitable appearance sans makeup at the close).

There’s one bit of dialogue in “MirrorMask” that at least seems appropriate in this unhappy context. It comes when Valentine remarks, “It’s all rubbish, isn’t it? It doesn’t mean anything.” A more self-referential bit of writing may never have occurred in a movie before. Adults will find this picture a drab exercise in style, and any children unlucky enough to tag along with them will be bored stiff. So perhaps if you have kids that you want to punish for some misdeed and don’t mind suffering along with them, “MirrorMask” will serve a useful purpose. Otherwise, keep your distance.


Jodie Foster’s new damsel-in-a-dither movie seems so close to her last suspenser that one might wonder whether it’s called “Flightplan” only because “Panic Cabin” falls so uneasily on the ear. Though the plot plays out in the sky rather than a small earthbound room, once again the star gets all anguished and excited trying to protect her daughter. Only this time mother and child aren’t locked in a safe-like cubicle in a house invaded by thieves; they’re on a magnificent new passenger aircraft the woman has helped design, and the problem is that the girl has disappeared during flight. The question: where is she? Or, more pointedly, is she anywhere at all? Because as the plane roars onward, it’s revealed that according to ordinarily unimpeachable sources, the girl died several days before. Was she just the hallucination of an unhinged grieving parent? Or is there something more sinister afoot?

Many viewers are likely to compare this movie with “Red Eye” simply because they’re both thrillers played mostly aloft, but “Flightplan” is actually more reminiscent of the classic “Twilight Zone” episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” in which William Shatner played a mentally-troubled fellow terrified at the sight of a gremlin tearing apart one of the engines of the plane on which he was flying, and unable to convince anybody else of the creature’s existence. (Richard Matheson’s tale was remade–very well–by George Miller as one part of the 1983 “Twilight Zone” movie, with John Lithgow succeeding Shatner.) Both are about paranoia–or possible paranoia–in the not-so-friendly skies.

But the old “Twilight Zone” differed from this movie in three important respects. First, it was only a half-hour long; “Flightplan” is three times that. Second, the TV show moved briskly; though the movie’s relatively short for a feature, it’s so sluggishly directed by Robert Schwentke (who seems to take this potboiler seriously) that it seems to go on forever. And finally, the film is far less credible than the old show, even though the latter was about an imaginary creature ripping apart a plane in mid-air. The first half of “Flightplan,” which depicts mother and child coming slowly to grips with their family tragedy, boarding the aircraft and getting separated, may be funereally paced, but it does generate a chilly sense that something is amiss and some modest tension. But at the forty-five minute mark or so, the movie takes a turn that strains credibility way past the breaking point; as the movie changes course to become a cat-and-mouse chase flick, it grows so preposterous that you not only have to put your brain on hold but remove it from your skull, toss it to the floor and stomp it into insensibility. Simply put, the script links together a conspiratorial chain so long and so ludicrous that by the close it’s reached jaw-dropping status. And by adding maternal love, mawkish sentimentality and ethnic reconciliation to the final act, it becomes bathetic as well as incredibly dumb.

Under the circumstances Jodie Foster does the best she can as Kyle Pratt, the woman at the center of this tempest of nonsense. She manages the motherly anxiety well enough, and when things call for her to get physical, she runs like a champion sprinter, crawls through small spaces adeptly, and throws a mighty punch. It’s a pity her talent is once again put at the service of such second-rate material. As the air marshal who jumps into the fray when Kyle goes ballistic, however, the talented Peter Sarsgaard is a disappointment. As in the recent “Skeleton Key,” he relies too heavily on his ease at conveying an air of slightly sinister good-naturedness; it’s as though he were on autopilot. The only other performers of much consequence are Sean Bean, who makes a stalwart flight captain; Erika Christensen and Kate Beahan, as properly cool flight attendants; and Marlene Lawston, who’s appropriately ethereal as the perhaps-ghostly child. On the technical side “Flightplan” is a quality product, with an elegant production design by Alexander Hammond and appropriately atmospheric photography by Florian Ballhaus. But James Horner’s score is at best workmanlike, and especially in the last reel the visual effects are less than impressive and the editing by Thom Noble goes slack.

In the end “Flightplan” turns out to be yet another example of an intriguing premise that goes haywire–a clever idea with a payoff that’s more like a dull thud. The picture has enough trouble just lifting off, but the real problem is that it crashes and burns long before landing. If you want to take a ride in the cinematic skies, get a seat on “Red Eye” instead. It may be just as silly as this movie, but Wes Craven at least knows how to pilot his way past the plot holes and keep his passengers pleased.