The luckiest beneficiary of the graphic-novel-into-movie fad may be Neil Gaiman, whose new project is both a movie and an illustrated publication (William Morrow, $34.95). Gaiman's had too much success to think in any terms other than those that have earned him subliterate demigod-hood, and MirrorMask galumphs along in static panels, prioritizing flash over thought, hyperextending a story that would barely sustain a children's picture book (like Gaiman's The Wolves in the Walls, also designed by director Dave McKean). This new, all-digital Alice in Wonderland variation does have scores of sublimely creepy otherworldly images, from the feline guard sphinxes with disembodied human faces (and brusque male voices) to the library whose books must be coaxed and stroked like nervous doves. McKean has a knack for cubist creatures and a dour, preindustrial monotonality that at various times thieves from Derek Jarman, Joel-Peter Witkin, and the Quays. My favorite: an acrobatic tribe of albino ape things with pigeon heads, whose beaks fall off at the worst times and who are eventually besieged by flying tar splats that transform into scuttling eyeball spiders.
The blitzkrieg of fantasy concepts is preceded by a laborious setup involving the plucky heroine (Stephanie Leonidas) complaining about her family's circus life (all tinsel, little sawdust) in time for her mother (Gina McKee) to come down with an unnamed illness. But the passage down the rabbit hole offers nominal relief: Gaiman is no Lewis Carroll, and he works in a decidedly post-Freudian ether. The ideas are arbitrary and rhymeless, the visuals inventive but empty, the good-versus-evil plot simplistic by the standards of Alice, The NeverEnding Story, and even Labyrinth. The measure of conviction needed to make and read comic books is all that's brought to bear, and the result might make good dope software, if you can sit still and stay awake. (NR)