Anyone expecting Labyrinth 2: Back In Hot Water from the dark, Henson-produced fantasy MirrorMask will be disappointed, though creator/comic book god Neil Gaiman's many fans will thrill to finally see the writer's imagination so undiluted on the screen. With a range of influences both obvious and subtle, Gaiman takes full advantage of his ability to free associate here, Hollywood be damned. Not having to worry about merchandising (other than the obvious comic book tie-ins) or a boffo opening weekend (it is opening only in select venues to prime interest for the DVD release), wizard of aaahs Gaiman and his Sandman conspirator Dave McKean, who directs, turn their spigot of inventiveness on full-blast here.
The Alice in this Wonderland is Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), who is, perhaps, not-so-coincidentally named, considering Leonidas's striking resemblance to Helena Bonham Carter. The future of Helena's parents' bizarro family-run circus, which already perpetually teeters on bankruptcy, becomes increasingly uncertain when one day, Helena's mother (Gina McKee) becomes gravely ill. Helena's coping mechanism is a dream world in which her drawings come to life as she envisions all her possible pasts in order so that she can face the future, come what may. Leonidas is playing a bit younger than she is (21 playing 15), but her doe-eyed baby face serves her well. The only other solid character, apart from the world itself, is Valentine (Jason Barry), a masked weirdo who becomes Helena's companion as she searches for the mythical MirrorMask which will restore order to this strange world. When we meet him, he is pretty self-serving and elusive, and while he is more defined by the end of it all, it is Helena who undergoes the most change. She is sort of like Dorothy Gale in reverse; instead of returning to the relative safety and simplicity of her childhood home, she faces the reality of this fragile life with slightly more grown-up eyes. Call it fantasy for the 21st century, a post-modern Follow Your Dream (But Use Some Common Sense And Have A Back-Up Plan) Fairy Tale.

Visually, this phantasmagoria is pretty unsettling. In Gaiman's and McKean's "Dark Lands", Helena encounters talking sphinxes that eat books (which hover and double as transportation), giants and Monkeybirds (again with the Oz!). Certainly, as a Muppet loyalist, I would have liked to have seen more puppetry instead of the largely CGI creations, though it is, despite its low budget, effective in creating such a creepy world (man, those tome-chomping cats haunt me still).

On the story side, there is not a long going on, sad to say. While Gaiman is becoming a somewhat successful novelist, he still primarily deals in images, and while that does not automatically disqualify him from telling a good story, he and McKean are a bit too focused on making their dreams (and Helena's) come to life. Also, they are not very clear on the connection between dream and reality, and leaving things so unresolved left me feeling a bit disengaged.

Gaiman will get it right, though. After 20 years of light dabbling in TV and movies, he is actively involved in writing three upcoming projects -- Henry Selick's Coraline, based on Gaiman's children's book, the Potter-esque Books Of Magic, based on his novel, and the adaptation of the epic poem, Beowulf.

Read our interview with Neil Gaiman by clicking here.