Stephanie Leonidas as Helena
Gina McKee as Joanne
Rob Brydon as Helena’s Father/Prime Minister
Jason Barry as Valentine
Dora Bryan as Nan
Robert Llewellyn as Gryphon
Andy Hamilton as Small Hairy
Nik Robson as Pingo

MirrorMask is the compelling story of a young girl’s journey through a dark, fantastic world. It follows beautifully in the tradition of fantastic fairy tales like Labyrinth and The Neverending Story, but with a darker edge added by Dave McKean’s brilliant surrealism.

A young girl (Stephanie Leonidas) runs away from her family’s circus and finds herself in a twisted landscape of floating stone giants and flying books. To find her way home, she must first find the MirrorMask and, in the process, discover the secret behind this strange world.

MirrorMask is a wonderfully demented fairy tale filled with fanged cats out of Escher sketches and prickly spiral staircases to nowhere, but at its core is simply a girl wishing her sick mother would get better. This is the genius of Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman: to create twisted, gorgeous worlds, breathtaking in their elaborate detail, yet never lose the ability to tell a compelling story.

In the opening credits, strips of paper come alive to form a circus. Spangled performers wander among the tents. Sock puppets discuss an evil queen. It is a thoroughly surreal scene, a circus by Salvador Dali come to life, until the very ordinary-looking woman at the ticket booth asks a mute clown to take over for her while she searches for someone who turns out to be her teenaged daughter. Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), the owner of the feet animating the sock puppets, has a very typical teenage argument with her mother and threatens, rather untypically, to run away from the circus.

What follows is a lovely journey through a fantastical landscape. Helena’s mother falls sick, and Helena herself, wishing to join the real world, finds herself instead in the Dark Lands, a twisted world where fish fly in schools through the air, insulted books return to the library of their own volition, and everyone wears a mask. It is a quirkily charming place, and there are flashes of Monty Pythonesque humor in Helena’s encounter with the Prime Minister (Rob Brydon, who also plays Helena’s father). Yet it is also dangerous, as Helena is threatened by savage sphinxes and a creeping dark rot which turns out to be the result of the slow death of the Queen of Light (Gina McKee, who also plays Helena’s mother). In this world of masks, it is Helena, with Leonidas’ wonderfully expressive, mobile face, who is seen as strange and powerful, and the Prime Minister begs Helena to find the MirrorMask, an item of great power that will both restore the queen to health and allow Helena to return home.

Dave McKean creates the MirrorMask world in two and four dimensions, not the normal three. Helena and her companion Valentine consult a librarian out of a Magritte painting, made of strips of paper marking where three dimensions have been unfolded into two. Balconies in another scene seem to reach into fourth dimension to act as docking stations for floating stone giants. The faces of vicious cats are floating masks covering nothing. All of this is lovingly and brilliantly rendered by the Jim Henson Company, who use computer animation and live action to dazzling effect.

McKean and Gaiman create stories on the edges of reality, such as Neverwhere‘s punk faerie court underneath London, or the world behind our dreams in the acclaimed fantasy series Sandman. MirrorMask is a wonderful new chapter in their long partnership.