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From Mirrormasks opening titleswith their multi-planed graphics and slightly whimsical, slightly disturbed three-dimensional drawingsyou know youre in for a treat. The film begins at a family circus fueled by little more than the dreams of Morris (Rob Brydon) and Joanne (Gina McKee), its husband and wife owners. Their daughter Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), however, has grown tired of the nomadic life and ironically wishes to run away from the circus to join the real world. But young Helena is about to move even further away from reality. She is about to enter the Dark Lands, a dreamscape/nightmare world filled with strange creatures, outlandish architecture, and an evil Queen (also played by Gina McKee). As with Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Helena ultimately realizes that theres no place like home. But unlike Dorothy, she cannot just click her heels together to return. Instead, she must find the powerful Mirrormask, which may be her only means of escaping the Dark Lands and its shadowy queen.

Gaiman and McKean have collaborated in the past but not in the film medium. With Gaiman as writer and McKean as illustrator, they have produced such books and graphic novels as Violent Cases, Signal to Noise, Mr. Punch and The Wolves in the Walls. McKean has also done the cover art for Gaimans highly successful Sandman series of graphic novels. So the two men have proven they have very complementary skills, and the ability to ignite our imaginations by taking us to another level of reality. In Mirrormask, these filmmakers even give the real world a surreal twist since reality is mainly represented by the circus. But while the circus has a magical storybook appeal, the Dark Lands is more ominous and has a kind of drug-induced hallucinogenic quality, Visually, the Dark Lands draw on such influences as Greek mythology, The Wizard of Oz, Salvador Dali, and even a bit of Yellow Submarine. Yet it also feels entirely new and original. Gaiman and McKean also give you a sense that these Dark Lands are ever shifting, both emotionally and physically. Sometimes theres beauty, whimsy and enchantment but other times danger and uncertainty loom.

Although much has been madeand rightly soof the special effects, the triumph of the film is how well those effects are integrated into the film so that they dont distract from the story. Viewers will certainly be dazzled but they will not be taken out of the film by effects designed merely to show off the latest technology. The effects, done in conjunction with the Jim Henson Company, are at the service of the story and bring it to life in all its bizarre and amazing detail. Gaiman and McKean make us believe in their fantasy world because they have created it with such care and specificity. People walk around in masks, creatures bear human faces, and a trip to the library requires butterfly nets to capture books that anxiously fly off the shelves. And what may be most amazing about Mirrormask is that it achieves its magic despite the financial hardships and other obstacles presented by its independent film status. But its precisely because it is an independent film and not the product of a big studio, that it is able to be so fiercely original.

Gaiman keeps the basic thrust of the story simpleHelena comes to appreciate her life and family by having them taken away from her. The simplicity of the plot is complemented by the complexity of the films visual design and by the themes it raises. The film considers universal notions about family, society and how we see ourselves fitting or not fitting in.

Mirrormask joins Corpse Bride and the upcoming Wallace and Gromit movie, as one of a current crop of current films that display animation at its best and most inventive. But unlike Corpse Bride and Wallace and Gromit, Mirrormask offers a richer, more layered artistic work. -----