Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) is a dissatisfied teenager who, unlike some her age, doesn't wish to run away and join the circus because she is already part of the circus owned by her mother (Gina McKee) and father (Rob Brydon). Helena wants to spread her wings and do something with a new found independence but her duty - and her mother - tell her that she should perform as part of the troupe, as financially things could be better for them. Tonight she sits in her caravan, not even bothering to get into her costume while her mother searches the site for her; when she finds her daughter, they have an argument, but Helena agrees to go on, little realising that her mother may soon be leaving her life...
Director Dave McKean and his co-writer Neil Gaiman had enjoyed huge success in the comics field, and unlike a lot of artists in that medium, were able to carry their singular visions over into the realm of film with this, an original story of their's. It was inspired by the continuing success of Henson company films such as Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, both of which had done consistently well on DVD, and is very much in the spirit of those works and others of that era like The Neverending Story - see if you can spot the visual reference to Labyrinth at one point.
As in The Wizard of Oz, Mirrormask features an unhappy young girl who enters a fantasy world, and here it's created through extensive masks and costumes for the performers, and more than anything else the use of computer design. Helena's mother collapses at the circus from an unnamed condition and is rushed to hospital, so the colourful carnival life is abruptly changed to a drab one in a Brighton tower block where Helena has to stay with her Nan (Dora Bryan). On the night that her mother goes in for an operation that may either kill her or cure her, Helena slips off to sleep only to find herself in an alien world that mixes up fantasy and reality.
After a lot of explaining, we learn that Helena is in a world split in two, a realm of shadows and light and the Queen of Light (McKee) is lying in a state of unconsciousness ever since the Queen of Darkness (McKee again) has lost not only her daughter but the special talisman known as, yes, the Mirrormask. It's up to Helena to find not only the talisman but the princess as well, and whenever she looks through any window she sees her own bedroom and someone who looks just like her misbehaving there - it doesn't take long for her to cotton on that this is the princess and she's messing up her life by assuming her role in it.
It's refreshing that McKean and Gaiman aren't shy about putting their themes straight out there, voiced plainly by the characters - but only eventually. Helena gets her own sidekick, Valentine (Jason Barry), who we're not sure if he's reliable or not but provides a useful entry point of explanation about this world, and she is threatened by black tendrils of shadow that are encroaching on the world of light. McKean's visuals are arresting but undeniably fussy and not necessarily attractive to the eye, a problem when the story is overfamiliar in spite of its novel appearance. Helena is on a journey to leave adulthood behind, but must learn that doesn't mean abandoning her family just as her mother and the Queen of Shadows must learn that they can't hang onto their daughters for ever. However, Mirrormask never really takes flight, bogged down in those remarkable animations that regrettably suffocate a worthwhile tale. Music by Iain Ballamy.