What a relief.

For a moment - or was it a decade? - I thought that the only fantasy vision allowed was Tim Burton's. Good news, then, as this largely British endeavour hits the big screen with a classy style all of its own.

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Long-time collaborators and graphic novelists Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman (Mr Punch, Violent Cases) have taken their breed of fantasy off the page and transferred it to the screen, courtesy of the Jim Henson Company.

Helena (Stephanie Leonidas, looking like a young Helena Bonham Carter and demonstrating the potential of becoming just as big a star) is fed up. Dad (Rob Brydon, putting in a measured performance in a rare straight role) owns a circus. Growing up is tough in a normal kind of way, which means she hates the circus, takes her frustration out on mum (Gina McKee) and wants to run away to "real life". Mum falls ill and the world tilts on its axis, as sleep thrusts Helena into a place of dreams.

In her fantasy, things are off-kilter, too. The twin kingdoms of darkness and light are in trouble. The Queen of Light (McKee again, who also takes the triple role of the curiously human Queen of Shadows) has fallen asleep, leaving her kingdom at the mercy of the dark. Helped by a physical and emotional juggler Valentine (Jason Barry), Helena sets out on a quest to find the MirrorMask and wake the queen before it is too late, hampered by the realisation that things are falling apart in her own world, too.

The kingdoms of Light and Shadow are a triumph of CGI. Reminiscent of a whole raft of artistic styles - from the Impressionists to Dali and Picasso - McKean's vision has a truly dreamlike quality. Things feel disjointed - and so they should. Fish swim along the streets, sphinxes with wings pose dodgy riddles and birds walk on four legs and look as though they're in training for The World's Strongest Man. Like a latter-day Alice, Helena takes this in her stride, convinced she will know the mask when she spots it. But this kingdom is full of masks - after all, "How do you know if you're happy and sad without one?"

Unlike many CGI offerings, words and character are at the heart of this film. There are few set pieces, just plain, simple imaginative drama that tweenies and teenagers are bound to enjoy. I'm sure Leonidas has a big career ahead of her, although Barry is less successful, perhaps because he is fighting a losing battle against the mask he wears.

To that end, younger children may find the circus elements a little too frightening, although older ones will love their sinister promise. It is unashamedly British in its cultural references and language, but, frankly, that makes a pleasant change.

As a quest-driven film, there are aspects that will feel familiar - the answering of riddles before you are allowed to pass by, for example - yet there is a complexity to the plot that elevates it above your average adventure. Despite the emphasis on light and dark, things in the real world and the fantasy are far from black and white.

How bad is the Queen of Shadow really? And don't we all have a dark side? That's certainly something that this MirrorMask will help audiences reflect upon.

Reviewed on: 26 Jan 2005
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A circus girl falls into a fantasy world where darkness threatens the kingdom of light.
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Keith Dudhnath ***1/2

Director: Dave McKean

Writer: Neil Gaiman, based on a story by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

Starring: Stephanie Leonidas, Gina McKee, Rob Brydon, Jason Barry, Stephen Fry, Dora Bryan, Robert Llewellyn, Andy Hamilton

Year: 2005

Runtime: 101 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK

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If you like this, try:

Pan's Labyrinth
The Wizard Of Oz