Although many children have threatened to run away and join the circus, Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) is threatening to run away from the circus and join the real world. The daughter of circus owners/performers, her whole life she has been spent under the big top or on the road. Possessing an extraordinary talent for art, the young girl is reaching an age where she wants to pursue her own goals. Frustrated, the teenager responds with a rebellious rebuff when her mom (Gina McKee) demands her help so the financially strapped show can go on.
Unfortunately, the night she decides to spout-off is the same evening the harried woman falls ill and is taken to the hospital. With her father (Rob Brydon) dodging her inquires about the seriousness of her mother's condition, Helena sketches compulsively, unable to offer an apology because her loving concern is being strangled by the bitterness of swallowing her pride.
This internal wrestle with guilt follows Helena into her dreams. Here her worst nightmares translate themselves as a fantasy world resembling her pencil drawings. Ruled over by a sleeping queen (played by the same actress portraying the mother) who will only awaken if a charm called a MirrorMask can be found, the cock-eyed kingdom is also plagued by an inky entity with icy tentacles capable of freezing anything it touches to stone. Volunteering to find the magical artifact and chase the dark shadows out of the land of light, Helena sets off with the assistance of a newfound friend named Valentine (Jason Berry). But the deeper she delves into the mysterious world and its strange masked inhabitants, the less black and white the quest appears.
For the audience, this live-action/computer-graphics combo has a hallucinogenic feel. Wandering through the weird landscape are bizarre creatures like floating giants, hostile sphinxes, scampering one-eyed spiders, and monkey-birds with removable beaks. As well, there is a controlling villainess (again played by the same actress portraying the mother) whose mouth spews forth a black flowing mass that solidifies everything it engulfs. Reminiscent of Alice In Wonderland, this looking glass experiences will undoubtedly frighten and confuse young viewers.
However, connoisseurs of graphic design and poetic metaphors may find themselves mesmerized by movie's amazing art direction and the script's obvious attempts to draw parallels between the heroine's real and imaginary worlds. Lightened by humorous moments (although not always intentionally), MirrorMask may be like an acquired taste -- something that improves with reflection and repeated exposure.