A curiously distant story is surrounded by enchanting visuals and special effects in this Alice in Wonderland-style tale of a young girl who has to solve a puzzle in a magical land in order to get back home and help her mother get well.
Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) has, as her mother points out, a life most kids her age would love to run away to. Her parents own a little circus. Helena performs as a juggler, but wishes she could stay in her room, making up stories and drawing pictures. Other girls might wish they could join the circus, but Helena wishes she could run away to “real life.” In an angry moment, she says she wishes her mother was dead.
And then Helena’s mother (Gina McKee of Notting Hill) becomes ill and has to have surgery. While she is gone, Helena somehow gets transported to The Dark Lands, a place of fantasy and magic. Nothing is right because the Queen of Light is sleeping and cannot awaken until a missing object is found.
Helena doesn’t just not know where it is; she does not know what it is. Still, she is confident she can find it. She sets off with Valentine (Jason Berry), an adult but an unreliable companion. Helena has to answer the riddle, find the key, and outsmart those who try to stop her to figure out why there is a young woman who looks just like her in what looks like her bedroom, behaving in a way that appalls her. She meets up with two queens, one asleep, one who will do anything to keep her, both looking a little familiar. And through these adventures she learns more about herself and begins to grow up.
But this movie is all about the sights, not the story, and the sights are glorious, all burnished shades of gold and scritchy lines. The magical images will engage and fire the imagination of the audience, even if the story sometimes feels cool and understated.
Parents should know that sensitive viewers of all ages may find some of the images and characters in this movie disturbing. Characters are in peril and a young girl worries about whether her mother will survive an operation. There are unhappy confrontations. Teenagers kiss, which another character finds gross and upsetting.
Families who see this movie should talk about why Helena wanted something different from a life that many kids her age would love to have. What was the most important thing she had to learn on her journey? What was the most important thing that Valentine had to learn? Parents and children often feel, like Helena, that adolescence is like swapping the person you know for someone who looks the same but feels and behaves very differently, the “real” one feeling as though he or she is living in a strange new place. What stories, like this one, have that as a theme?
Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy The Wizard of Oz and (for older children and teenagers) Return to Oz, as well as other movie visits to fantasy lands like The Never-Ending Story, Labyrinth, Willow, The Dark Crystal, The Phantom Tollbooth, My Neighbor Totoro and Alice in Wonderland. They may want to take a look at the work of Saul Steinberg and Ronald Searle, whose drawings may have inspired some of the images in this film. And they will enjoy the novels of Neil Gaiman.