'MirrorMask'

Looking-glass eyes

EVEN IF YOU aren't familiar with any of MirrorMask's touchstones – the work of Sandman's Neil Gaiman, who wrote the story; artist and frequent Gaiman collaborator Dave McKean, who directs; or any of the Jim Henson Company's darker, Kermit-free output (The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth) – you can still dive headfirst into the film's fantasy world. Bored with her seemingly exotic life as a performer at the pocket-sized circus run by (groan) her parents, Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), dreams instead of being a boring, average teenager. When her mother (Gina McKee) falls suddenly ill, Helena travels into a world seemingly conjured by her own drawings, filled with off-kilter, Wonderland-Meets-Oz characters: sphinxes, giants, monkey birds, and masked jugglers. Though she assumes she's just trapped in a particularly vivid dream, the girl's bravado wavers when she becomes caught in a destructive conflict between the land's two ruling powers – and realizes she has an evil twin of sorts who's taken over Helena's life in the "real world." A dying-kingdom ticking clock (elements of The NeverEnding Story) and a particularly trippy Burt Bacharach interlude guide MirrorMask toward its fairy-tale conclusion, which springs no surprises equal to those conveyed by the film's truly unique visuals, a painterly mix of live action and animation. (Cheryl Eddy)