The Great Wall
Unlike any American blockbuster you've seen, a conservative movie with action set pieces that are actually inventive and thrilling enough to be worthwhile.
"MirrorMask" must have been a labor of love to make. Watching it is also a labor of love. The movie is a triumph of visual invention, but it gets mired in its artistry and finally becomes just a whole lot of great stuff to look at while the plot puts the heroine through a few basic moves over and over again.
The story involves Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), who is fed up with working for the Campbell Family Circus. "It's your father's dream," says her mother Joanne (Gina McKee). Yes, but it's not Helena's dream, and she resents her parents for denying her an ordinary girlhood. "I hope you die," she tells her mom, which is an unwise move for any character who even vaguely suspects she might be in a fantasy movie. Her mom promptly collapses and is hospitalized with an unspecified but alarming illness.
Helena's fantasy life is lived through drawings of an imaginary city that looks as if Ralph Steadman were the mayor. Through a process best described by that reliable shortcut "magical," she enters this world, a fantastical universe where fish swim through the air and the people from her real world appear transformed by bizarre masks and costumes. It is a world of light and dark; the Queen of Light (also played by Gina McKee) is in a trance-like state, and apparently it's up to Helena to venture into the Dark World and return with the means to restore goodness and awaken the queen.
The movie's fantasy world has an eerie beauty. This beauty enchanted me for several minutes, and then it began to wear on me, and finally it was a visual slog. Sorry. The story resembles what happens in Bernard Rose's "Paperhouse" (1988), in which a girl draws a house in another world, falls ill, enters that world and finds herself responsible for saving the lonely little boy who lives in the house. In Rose's film, the images are stark and clear, with the directness of a child's drawings. In "MirrorMask," with artist Dave McKean as director and production designer, the images are fuzzy and foggy and Helena encounters one weird scenario after another, in a world where the nonsense logic seems cloned from Wonderland.