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Samuel Goldwyn Productions

Official Site

Director: Dave McKean

Producer: Simon Moorhead

Written by: Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean

Cast: Stephanie Leonidas, Gina McKee, Jason Barry, Rob Brydon


Circus folk can be really fascinating if they’re not horrifying (so I’ve heard), but when you’ve grown up with your father’s circus troupe, the fantastic has become routine. Wake up, practice juggling, get on the unicycle, balance a baseball bat on your nose, wash the bear, put the bear on the unicycle, practice juggling with the bear, wash the unicycle, etc. Where does a child who grew up in a circus dream of running off to? The military? Man, I’m glad I didn’t grow up in a circus, at least not a popular one.

Helena (Leonidas) knows the dreary fate of a circus child. She has been with her father’s troupe for her whole life, and needs to expand, someway, somehow. This places some strong tension between her and her mother (McKee), who needs her with the family, so that her father (Brydon) can continue running the circus. But nobody likes a cage, and Helena becomes a hissy little bitch when she and her parents fight. Well, the good times couldn’t last, and in the middle of a show, Helena’s mother collapses, with some sort of severe spike in her soul (located somewhere in her brain). Now, Helena finds herself haunted by her angry words to her mother that amount to wishing she’d die. Lost in her artistic scribbles, she tries to cope with the world, waiting to hear whether her mother will survive a dangerous operation. She lays her head down to rest, has a horrid little dream, and wakes up in wonderland. This wonderland is dark, with shadow creeping in on the scarce light that exists. She makes a quick friend with a juggler (Barry) and sets out to explore this world, finding it eerily connected to her own. This world holds the key to her problems in her real life, and if she could make things right here, then maybe she might bring some balance to herself. But not everything is as it seems. She is not in her own dream… or is she?

First off, this was a damned good movie. It got a little slow start, what with establishing the conflict in reality, and then introducing the other world, but once it got rolling it was damned good. As for “wonderland” itself, it seemed… unfocused. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very glad that there are Hensons left in film, and that this particular one has moved past muppets, but the basic nature of the dream world didn’t quite strike me as unified. It starts out bizarre, with Helena seeming as weird to them as they do to her. She ventures further across the dream world with her juggler boy friend (not boyfriend), into the shadow lands, and then the theme of the movie starts pulling the dream together. The grand picture comes out, bringing to light all the struggles Helena’s imagination has suffered, and Voila! You have a damned good movie.

So go see this movie! The comedy is stretched a little thin for my tastes, but I sometimes get the feeling that I’m a touch too demanding in the funny department. Also the initial eccentricities from the beginning are left as sort of meaningless, because the shadow realm is so well focused and lacks the random shit that characterized the city of light. So don’t see it for the comedy or the meaningless characters. See it for the fascination, the wonder, the tolerable admission fee, and best of all, the mute clowns. Go for all the reasons you’d go to a circus. And then, stay for a good lesson on what it means to be a good mother and a good daughter, even if the lesson is in British. Just make sure that if you’re paying someone else’s way, that you really like that person.

—Duncan Wright

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

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