Filmed largely against a blue screen and worked over by animators and effects artists, the Jim Henson Co.'s "Mirrormask" emerges as an overproduced novelty pic that looks and feels more like a company promo reel than an engaging piece of storytelling. Pic seems destined for the most fleeting of theatrical careers before passing on to vid/DVD afterlife.

Filmed largely against a blue screen and worked over by some 17 credited animators and effects artists, the Jim Henson Co.’s “Mirrormask”emerges as an overproduced novelty picthat looks and feels more like a company promo reel than an engaging piece of storytelling. An elaborate kids fantasy that reps the feature directing debut of acclaimed graphic designer David McKean, pic is loaded with references to Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum, but far too often relies on its technology as a substitute for imagination. Without the built-in audience of a “Harry Potter” or “Lemony Snicket,” pic seems destined for the most fleeting of theatrical careers before passing on to vid/DVD afterlife.

Scripted by cult comic-book author Neil Gaiman (the “Sandman” series), “Mirrormask” inverts the childhood fantasy of running off to join the circus.Having spent her entire life living among circus performers, 15-year-old Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) wishes aloud for a life more ordinary, but quickly regrets having done so when her mother (Gina McKee) mysteriously collapses.

Blaming her selfish desires for her mother’s illness, a distraught Helena journeys into the Dark Lands, a drably colored parallel reality where fish swim in mid-air, books become airborne skateboards and everyone wears a mask .

In a distinctly “Oz”-like gambit, the Dark Lands are also populated with a host of familiar faces that create parallels to Helena’s world — from the comatose Queen of Light (McKee again) to the sage-like Prime Minister (Rob Brydon, who also plays Helena’s father) to Helena’s own menacing alter-ego, who has evidently swapped places with Helena out of her own desire to escape her familiar surroundings.

After being mistaken for the anti-Helena by the anti-Helena’s possessive mother, the Queen of Shadows (also McKee), the real Helena teams up with a juggler named Valentine (Jason Barry, whose CG head resembles a box of french fries), Helena then finds herself in a race against time to recover a powerful charm capable of revivifying the Queen of Light and restoring order to the universe.

“Mirrormask” is the type of film that gets hailed as “visionary” because it doesn’t quite look like any other movie. But while that’s true up to a point, its labor-intensive computer-generated (or enhanced) imagery creates a sense of disconnection between the actors and their environment, as well as between audience and film.

Though it recalls, in its broad outlines, such modern children’s fantasies as “The Neverending Story” and (particularly) the Henson Co.’s own “Labyrinth” and “The Dark Crystal,” pic lacks those films’ enveloping atmosphere and sense that it would be possible to reach out and touch what’s onscreen. Instead, “Mirrormask” feels chilly and distant, like watching a high-style videogame being played by someone else.

McKean achieves no modulation whatsoever between the his real and fantasy universes, swirling his camera about violently even when a more tempered set-up might better fit the occasion and setting the film to an omnipresent jazz fusion score (by Ian Ballamy) that quickly wears out its welcome. Oddly enough for a pic whose visual elements are the sell, images on print screened were often murky and soft, suggesting a poor transfer from digital post-production elements.

Mirrormask

U.K.

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Destination Films presentation of a Jim Henson production. Produced by Simon Moorhead. Executive producers, Lisa Henson, Michael Polis, Martin G. Baker. Directed by David McKean. Screenplay, Neil Gaiman; story, Gaiman, McKean.

Crew

Camera (Soho Images color), Antony Shearn; editor, Nicolas Gaster; music, Ian Ballamy; production designer, McKean; supervising art director, Zoe Trodden; costume designer, Robert Lever; sound (Dolby Digital), Ian Sands; sound designers, Hugh Johnson, Barnaby Smith; supervising sound editors, Larry Sider, Joakim Sundstrom; CGI supervisor and producer, Max McMullin; digital animation and effects, Hourglass Studios; assistant director, Joe Lea; casting, Louis Hammond. Reviewed at Aidikoff Screening Room, Beverly Hills, January 17, 2005. (In Sundance Film Festival -- Premieres). Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Valentine - Jason Barry Morris Campbell/ Prime Minister - Rob Brydon Helena/ Anti-Helena - Stephanie Leonidas Joanne/Queen of Light/ Queen of Shadows - Gina McKee

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