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Film Review: MirrorMask

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Director: Dave McKean
(Sony Pictures)

Hey, kids – think your parents are embarrassing? Helena’s run a circus. They wear ridiculous makeup and hang out with mimes. They make her put on a mask and perform night after night, then go home to live in a trailer outside the Big Top. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a loving, warm family relationship – but can any of us really blame Helena when, in MirrorMask‘s first scenes, she throws a tantrum over why she can’t just go live in the “real world?”

This character lives life surrounded by the kind of surreal abnormality most kids only dream of experiencing; her problems are not with boys and schoolwork, but with moving from town to town and making sure she nails her juggling act each night. And yet, as she approaches adulthood, Helena is beginning to realize that she can’t keep living this life without a dose of normalcy: fantasy is closing in around her, both outside in the circus and in the whimsical drawings with which she plasters her room. There’s no other world for her to escape to, because the world she lives in is already “other” enough – and that is precisely what sets her apart from those thoroughly “real world”-based predecessors Alice, Dorothy, et. al. Rather than enriching her reality by embracing the unreal, Helena must embrace the real by running a nightmare gauntlet of her own creation…the whole “adolescent working out her puberty through dreamscape” motif turned unceremoniously on its head.

It’s clever stuff. And in the hands of visionary graphic novel team Dave McKean (who directs) and Neil Gaiman (who writes), that cleverness just might make you put aside any prejudices against a film which could otherwise legitimately be described as “Labyrinth meets Cirque de Soleil.” Playing the “world-in-opposites” tradition of children’s literature to the hilt, MirrorMask is familiar in theme, but brilliant and subversive in execution; you may have seen something like it, but you’ve never seen anything like it. Even the earlier, more realistic scenes look like a bizarre and wonderful dream, photographed by cinematographer Tony Shearn in extreme wide angles that curve and distort like fun house mirrors. And when Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) finally does enter the dream world, a veritable Pandora’s Box of wild imagery explodes onto the screen: cats with human faces, part-ape/part-bird/part-snowman hybrids, spiders which attach themselves to the face and function like eyes. Visually, this is a truly wondrous film, as magnetic and enticing to adults as it will inevitably be to children. If Jim Henson Productions plans on making a full-fledged departure from puppet-based fantasy filmmaking into the realm of computer animation, they couldn’t have picked a better project to set things off.

That said, it’s a disheartening fact that the area in which MirrorMask most falls flat is its technical execution…that is, what makes this movie a movie, and not just a parade of disjointed, if wondrous, visuals. Most of the cast and crew are newcomers to the industry – and unfortunately, it shows. Even in its most spectacular moments, MirrorMask feels oddly two-dimensional, not necessarily in terms of character development or story but literally, as though we are looking through the camera at the pages of a book. Part of this may stem from an attempt to translate McKean’s striking mixed-media artwork directly into cinematic form, breathing life into his creatures but failing to grant them the sense of depth a film like this demands. But there are also the same shortcomings which have plagued numerous recent attempts to mix live-action and CG: simply put, too much of the latter and it just doesn’t look real. Of course, MirrorMask avoids that pitfall insomuch as it isn’t trying to look “real;” but the fact remains, 100 minutes of sustained artificiality and what would have looked incredible in a music video starts to feel a little tiresome.

Not that the “human element” is helping matters much. Leonidas, at least, makes for a lovely and believable protagonist; half imp, half indie kid, both fascinated and repulsed by the duality of her own nature. Gina McKee turns in a good performance (or two) as well, capturing both the loving and possessive sides of parenthood as Helena’s mother and then as the wicked queen who tries to keep her trapped in the dreamworld. But there’s a tendency for the understatement of even these stand-out actresses to be swallowed up by the sheer massiveness of the rest of the movie…needless to say, the less impressive performers (that’s you, Jason Barry as Valentine) don’t stand a chance. Lines fall flat, drowned by the images, or just disappear into thin air; one gets the impression that the actors’ voices were recorded from a room away. Arguably, this detachment is just part and parcel of the dreamlike ambience of McKean’s and Gaiman’s world. But a visual feast this sumptuous should really not be as hard to enjoy as MirrorMask occasionally is.

And yet, despite the frustrating moments, despite the occasionally uninspired performances, despite all of these shortcomings, MirrorMask remains a thoroughly fascinating semi-failure. It’s not just of interest to fans of Gaiman (although you can bet they’ll be eating it up), or to its arty preteen target audience; this film pushes the envelope in fantasy cinema storytelling, more so than pretty much anything in the last decade. What’s more, for all their flights of fancy, Gaiman and McKean never forget the heart of their story. The result is a surreal, symbolic and spectacular meditation on the travails of adolescence, as only Neil Gaiman could provide. It might not always be pretty – and it sure ain’t perfect – but it’s still a hell of a ride.

Reviewed by Zach Hoskins

This review is also posted on The Modern Pea Pod.

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  • Good review, Zach. That pretty much summed up my feelings about the film. Visually, it was mind-blowing, but I found it took me an astonishingly long time to get into the story, to do more than just look and go “ooooh, pretty” a lot. Possibly a double-edged sword, the visual innovation, because it is overwhelmingly beautiful.

  • Hey there, I agree. I felt pretty much the same way…good actors (except for Valentine, who seemed as if he was from a completely different movie) but they just got lost in the visuals. Also, I didn’t really think the lead girl really responded to the world around her. She never really got confused or freaked out or scared or anything. She just kind of accepted it right away. Visually amazing but still somewhat disappointing overall.

  • Well, I guess you could argue that the girl didn’t respond much because the world was so familiar to her…it was her drawings, etc., and she seemed pretty conscious and comfortable with the idea that it was a dream. I guess this goes back to her growing up in a circus and not being terribly acquainted with reality, unlike the rest of us. I guess that was just how my suspension of disbelief worked.

    But yeah, I feel like there were just some basic filmmaking issues here that were overlooked. (Why weren’t there any shadows, for instance?) I find it very telling that both the director and the cinematographer have never worked on a feature film before. Still, what an amazing art project.