Neil Gaiman established himself as one of the premiere comic book writers of the ’90s with his phenomenally popular Sandman series, a sprawling examination of myth and allegory. Often teamed with illustrator and painter Dave McKean, Sandman presented a world filled with complex characters, lush artistry and savvy storytelling.

Unfortunately, a comic book is not a movie. Narrative discipline has never been Gaiman’s strong suit, and his first foray into motion pictures, despite director Dave McKean’s arresting visual sensibilities, lacks drama and immediacy.

Borrowing ideas and themes from Alice in Wonderland and Labyrinth, the movie follows Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), a young woman who wants to run away from the family circus and join the real world. Angry with her mother (Gina McKee), she petulantly wishes her dead, only to have her fall mysteriously ill. As the circus dissolves and the disease progresses, guilt begins to consume Helena until one night she wakes to find herself in a surreal dream world that echoes the fanciful sketches on her bedroom wall.

Filled with mask-wearing humans and bizarre monsters, it’s a troubling landscape where darkness and light perpetually wrestle for dominance. Joined by a juggler named Valentine (Jason Barry), Helena journeys from the city of the slumbering White Queen to the dark lands of the Black Queen to find a magic mask, which will not only save her mother but also prevent the runaway Princess of Shadows — who has escaped into the real world and taken Helena’s place — from destroying the kingdom in a flood of poisonous gloom.

Joined by Jim Henson’s creative team, McKean uses this overly familiar dark fantasy as a canvas for his outlandish and impressionistic visuals, delivering a film that could only be created in the digital age. Words can’t effectively describe MirrorMask’s lavish, delicate, gorgeous imagery. McKean has created an entire universe out of whole cloth, translating his evocative paintings into flesh and blood.

But over time it becomes difficult to relate to the film’s landscape, and the effects begin to oppress instead of transport the viewer. Since everything is presented as an illusion, you lose track of what you’re looking at and why you should care. Furthermore, Gaiman’s confusing and overly vague plot leads McKean to sacrifice dramatic momentum in favor of dreamy wonder.

The cast of mostly unknown actors is engaging enough, and Leonidas in particular shines with innocence and sexuality. The young actress almost manages to carry the story’s more baffling turns, but is eventually undone by the film’s lethargic pace.

As an exercise in artistic design, MirrorMask is certainly unique and even revolutionary cinema. In an attempt to marry the visual style of Salvador Dalí to the film sensibilities of Jean Cocteau, Gaiman and McKean have created some astonishing moments. In one amazing sequence, a group of macabre, oversized jack-in-the-boxes dance to the Carpenters’ “Close To You.” It’s a wondrous image ripped from our dreams. But a movie is more than just fanciful moments, and even the most sophisticated of smoke and mirrors can’t hide an undercooked story.


Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).

Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].

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