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Film review: 'Mirrormask' is a visual delight

MIRRORMASK — *** — Stephanie Leonidas, Gina McKee, Jason Barry; rated PG (violence).

"MirrorMask" is one of the most visually stunning, imaginative fantasies in recent memory. In fact, its ingenious design work almost puts "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride" to shame.

And yet this live-action/digital animation hybrid is also aloof and cold and doesn't engage as it should. In some respects it's a movie that's easier to appreciate than it is to enjoy.

But it is great eye-candy, and the film is sure to appeal to fans of animation, graphic novels (director Dave McKean and co-screenwriter Neil Gaiman are comic-book veterans) and of dark gothic fantasy.

The story is a bit reminiscent of "Alice in Wonderland" and centers on Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), a teen who's like many of her peers, since she has trouble communicating with her parents. But unlike most other teens, she works as a performer for her parents' traveling circus troupe. She's gotten a bit tired of that routine, though, and is taking it out on her mother, Joanne (Gina McKee).

When Joanne falls ill, Helena blames herself and retreats into one of her fantasies — a world where books are used to fly, where everyone wears masks and where there's an evil queen who looks curiously like her mother (McKee, in a dual role).

With help from her reluctant guide, Valentine (Jason Barry), Helena becomes determined to explore this realm and to find the mythical MirrorMask, which may help restore things to "normal."

In many ways, this is a conventional story, and in a few spots McKean lets it get away from him (a couple of scenes linger on too long as he takes viewers on a tour of this odd fantasy world).

It is fun to look at, though.

One of the best, albeit creepiest moments comes when life-size, somewhat feminine Jack in the Boxes serenade Helena to the tune of the Carpenters' hit "Close to You." (Kudos to McKean and the Jim Henson Company for making the most of an extremely limited budget.)

The cast also seems to be having fun with the material, and Barry steals a few scenes as the pithy Valentine, while relative newcomer Leonidas will be someone to watch for in future projects.

"MirrorMask" is rated PG for some violent and disturbing imagery. Running time: 101 minutes.