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MirrorMask

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The battle between style and substance rages at the heart of “MirrorMask,” and style emerges as the victor. This is a film packed full of vivid imagination and brilliantly realized visual concepts — all in the service of a so-so story with forgettable characters.

In the tradition of characters such as Dorothy or Alice who go to fanciful places like Oz and Wonderland, we meet Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), a 15-year-old girl who is a reluctant performer in her parents’ English circus. “I want to run away and join real life!” she declares in one self-consciously ironic bit of dialogue.

But that is not to be, for instead of real life, she soon finds herself in the Darklands on a search for a powerful object known as the MirrorMask. This is needed to restore the balance between the Darklands and the City of Light, which is currently in great danger because the Light Queen (Gina McKee) has fallen asleep.

That isn’t as silly as it sounds. You see, Helena’s own mother (also played by Gina McKee) has lapsed into a coma, and the events in the “real world” parallel Helena’s journey through the Darklands. As with all good fantasy movies, there is real import lying under the dazzling ideas of magic and spells. (Note how magical books are in this world — unsurprising, given that novelist Neil Gaiman wrote the screenplay.)

But it is not, when you get down to it, any smarter or more clever than, say, “The Never-Ending Story” or “The Wizard of Oz,” both of which it closely resembles. And the dynamic between Helena and Valentine (Jason Barry), her bumbling sidekick through the Darklands, is jokey and domestic, belying the film’s fantasy-world tone.

Then again, though the lackluster story prevents the film from being brilliant, it can still be very good. Simply looking at it is an awesome experience, if only to observe the endless procession of magical creatures, creative visual devices and cats with human faces. State-of-the-art technology, not to mention a director (Dave McKean) with experience in creating graphic novels, has enabled all of these ideas to be integrated seamlessly into the world of human actors. It suggests that while there’s no place like home, there are sure some nifty places to visit.

B- (1 hr., 41 min.; PG, mild thematic elements and scary stuff.)

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