Somewhere in the United Kingdom, fifteen year old Helena (Stephanie Leonidas, also featured in the painful “Yes”) performs as part of her father’s Campbell Family Circus, a Cirque du Soleil-inspired troop of acrobats and clowns who travel around the countryside entertaining the small town folk. While Helena loves her parents, she despises the circus and the circus lifestyle, wishing she could run away from it all and become a part of real life. Unfortunately, the circus is forced to shut down when Helena’s mother Joanne (Gina McKee, best known to American audiences as the wheelchair-bound Bella in “Notting Hill”) is stricken ill during a performance, and Helena is positive it was her fault. But before she can make amends, Helena finds herself sucked into a bizarre journey through the realms of the Dark Lands, an alternate reality populated with all sorts of fantastic creatures and a world in chaos due to the machinations of the Queen of Shadows (McKee redux), whose power grab for control is responsible for putting the Queen of Light (McKee yet again) into a coma-like sleep. As Helena journeys through the Dark Lands, she discovers the only way for her to return to her world is to find the fabled Mirror Mask, an object of indescribable power, to reawaken the quiescent ruler.
It’s clear, while watching “Mirrormask,” that its creators are clearly having the times of their lives, conceiving a moving graphic novel and overloading every edge and nook and cranny with as much information as the human eye can behold, almost to the point of visual overload. The images are so surreal and fantastic and breathtaking, one could only wish its lackadaisical pace in getting the story told could have been as equal to the challenge. In a graphic novel, getting Helena from Point A to Point B could be done in a panel or two and we’re back into the story. In a movie, filmmakers often feel the need to show at least a portion of the journey, even if nothing of interest happens getting there. McKean and his animators have Helena and her various traveling companions going through all sorts of uninteresting locations, just so they could throw in an extra visual gag here and there, even though these gags add nothing to the story. So congested with graphics is “Mirrormask” that, when the inevitable ending finally arrives, audiences are merely relieved the whole thing is over.
”Mirrormask” is more proof that most filmmakers need to be less dependent on computer generated imagery to tell their stories, unless of course they are making an all-CG animated film like “Toy Story.” It’s only logical, when one has their own computer animation studio, to use that studio to create locations in-house to help keep live-action shooting costs down, and “Mirrormask” looks far richer than its estimated four million dollar budget. But all the beauty on the screen in meaningless if the images mask a less-than-compelling story or blase characterizations, leaving what could have been a showcase for the future of digital cinema looking like another reason to stick with film for a while longer.
As the graphics for this film garner an A+ while the story can only muster a D, our final grade for “Mirrormask” splits the difference: B-Rating: B-