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.