There's a problem with reviewing a movie like MirrorMask, I'm not quite sure where to start. How are any words that I use going to do any kind of justice to what was created through the visual magic and fertile imagination of David McKean and Neil Gaiman? Especially when the final product was realized through the work of the equally innovative folks at the Jim Henson Company.
Obviously I liked the movie, I guess that's not hard to guess from that opening paragraph, but so what? I could end the review right here and just say – watch the movie, it's freaking brilliant – trusting that you know enough about the work of the people involved that taking my word for it isn't going to be that much of a leap of faith.
But maybe you want a little bit more from a review or a critique, like how about some insights into the inner meaning or some such crap like that. The deep significance of the fact that the lead character Helena dreams that the world of her illustrations have come to life and its become a reality where she is trapped.
Is there significance that everyone in this alternate reality hides their feelings and faces behind a mask? Or that her evil doppelganger has taken her place in her own world, and that her mother is represented by two separate people in this world; one the queen of the light town and the other queen of shadows town. How about the fact that her other self crossing into the "real" world threatens the survival of both worlds in some form or other.
Of course, we can say that the dark princess Helena represents the potential brat and bad teenager Helena could become, or knows that she has the potential to be, and is seeing in her dream state the havoc such a creature would wreck on her home life. The real Helena's family runs a circus and she no longer wants to live the life of a road warrior. She wants a normal life of going to school and hanging out, or that's what she thinks she wants.
Her rebellion takes the form of being obstinate and obstructive, objecting to going on for a performance, even though once she is out in the ring with her father you can see her coming alive as they work the audience. She's just being the typical teenager. But one day her mother collapses and she blames herself for it. "If I hadn't been such an asshole Mom wouldn't be lying in a hospital bed right now" is her state of mind before the dream world hits.
Of course, there is the whole significance of mirrors. First, they show you your reflection, but they also turn everything around and backwards. So what happens if you walk through the mirror, and are the one looking back through at your life? You see the contrary – you're hard at work being everything you're not, but fear you are on the verge of becoming. In order to set things right you have to go back and be who you really are, but first you need to deal with all the things that have been clouding your mind on the right side of the mirror.
That's what dreams are for aren't they? To receive the messages from your subconscious that you need in order to get over hurdles. Neil Gaiman must be one of the few writers around who can carry off this type of script without it coming out sounding like a new age self-help book crossed with a cheap psychological thriller. He achieves that delicate balance of showing her actual life on one hand, and the way she perceives it on the other; letting the lines blur on occasion to heighten the drama, but never overstating or oversimplifying.
In this type of collaboration, between gifted visual artist and gifted writer in a visual medium like film, it's hard to discern which came first the picture or the story. In a question and answer period in the special features on the DVD, they are rather coy about the whole question, just implying that they feed off each other. A picture will suggest something, which in turn will suggest another picture and so on.
At first view Dave McKean's artwork can be quite unsettling with its frozen human expressions on animal forms, but after a while you begin to realize how perfect it is for this film and recreating the dream state. In fact, as production designer he was responsible for the whole look of the film, not just the dreamscape artwork.
There are actually three worlds that McKean has created visually in this movie; the dream world, the world of the family circus, and the concrete world of council flats and hospital wards that is the so-called real world. He uses three separate colour pallets to help emphasise the differences between each local and creates atmosphere's complementary to each.
The circus is full of the bright vibrant colours of the costumes and lights, the real world is all grey and steel blues, harsh and bleak, and the dream world is full of browns and bronzes looking mainly like an old sepia toned photograph. Only during Helena's brief sojourn in the shadow city with her buddy Valentine does the dream world change, and then it becomes blacks and the darker range of the entire colour wheel.
Because this is a live-action movie, real actors are part of the mixture that goes into creating the effects of the movie. The four leads, Stephanie Leonidas as Helena and her evil twin, Gina McKee – triple duty as Mother, Dark Queen, and Light Queen, Jason Barry as Valentine, and Rob Brydon as Helena's Father and the Prime Minister of the City of Light, all work beautifully within the artificial world created by Mr. Gaiman and Mr McKean. What is especially nice is that they are not just add-ons to the visuals, but have been incorporated by Dave McKean in his director's cap, as an essential part of the process.
Perhaps everything works so well because Dave McKean has so much control over what is going on. Being both production designer and director allows him the luxury of not having to spend extraneous time consulting with the design team. Of course, he might have had some nasty arguments with himself but that's another story for another day.
I had briefly mentioned the extra features earlier and the best thing about them are the two interviews with David McKean and Neil Gaiman individually at the beginning of the extra items, and the very end when they have edited together various question and answer periods that Mr. Gaiman and Mr. McKean had conducted during the promotional tour of the film.
First of all, they have known each other for over a decade and they are both very funny men, so these sessions are filled with humour and silliness. But at the same time we find out plenty about how the film was put together and their working relationship. Interestingly enough, in all of their years of working together on projects, from comics to novels, this was the first time they ever had to work in the same room together.
Their description of the working environment at Henson studios was hysterical, but also made you realize how it would have been hard not to create something special. They talked about coming into this room that looked like it was right out of an Edwardian mansion, with huge portraits hung on the walls. But then you notice that the gilded frames are surrounding pictures of Kermit playing his banjo, or Miss Piggy in a Tutu and your perception on reality is changed radically.
MirrorMask is a remarkable story told in remarkable fashion by two of the best storytellers around right now. One person is gifted with ability to craft pictures with words, while the other can tell a story with pictures: when those two talents are combined genius is usually the result. MirrorMask is one such meeting of minds.