(2005) Directed by Dave McKean; Written by Neil Gaiman; Story by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean; Starring: Stephanie Leonidas, Gina McKee, Jason Barry and Rob Brydon;
Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Rating: *** ½
“We often confuse what we wish for with what is.” – Valentine (Jason Barry)
MirrorMask is a rarity in the realm of so-called “family” films, engaging the brain as well as the eyes. While the films of Pixar typically do a good job of doing both of these things, most of their films occupy a comparatively safe middle ground – things might get a bit dark, but the filmmakers are always quick to return the story to the light. Jim Henson Productions’ movie dwells within the shadowy recesses of the imagination, confronting the less savory (or marketable) aspects of growing up. Recalling Labyrinth,* the works of Roald Dahl, ** and The Wizard of Oz, MirrorMask reminds us to be careful about what we wish for.
* Fun fact: David Bowie was among the list of actors considered for the part of the Prime Minster, which was eventually played by Rob Brydon.
** Fun fact number two: Rusty Goffe, who plays the Yellow Gnome, also appeared as one of the Oompa Loompas from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) is a typical teenager in an atypical situation. She resents working in a circus run by her parents, preferring a normal life instead. She retreats into her drawings to escape from her present state of affairs. In response to Helena shirking her responsibilities, her mother says, “You’ll be the death of me,” to which Helena replies, “I wish I was.” Helena soon lives to regret her poor choice of words, however, when her mother becomes deathly ill, and is hospitalized.
Helena becomes immersed in an alternate world comprised of her drawings. Everyone except her wears a mask to show (or hide) their emotions. A dark force is taking over the land, and the benevolent Light Queen has fallen into a deep sleep from which she can’t awake, spurring Helena to embark on a quest to retrieve the fabled MirrorMask and revive the queen. Accompanied by one of the land’s residents, (Jason Barry as the enigmatic Valentine), and assisted by her Really Useful Book, she must find the mask before it’s too late. Gina McKee plays the three most pivotal roles in Helena’s life, as her ailing mother, the Dark Queen and the Light Queen. The Dark and Light Queens reflect Helena’s ambivalence toward her mother, and Leonidas’ turn as her mirror-self Anti-Helena reinforces her conflicted frame of mind.
Director Dave McKean* renders Gaiman’s richly imagined fantasy world on an impossibly small budget (approximately $4 million). The surrealist computer-animated landscapes and absurd creatures that inhabit the fantasy world were realized for less than most big-budget productions spend on actors. The film’s look owed much to necessity, based on limitations of time, money and technology. McKean relied heavily on improvisation from his relatively small crew, stating that many of the effects and designs were “made up on the fly.” While the end results aren’t exactly cutting edge, many of the images are delightfully trippy. A favorite sequence involves Helena being clothed by a group of animated dolls, singing the creepiest rendition of the Carpenters’ “Close to You” that you’re ever likely to hear.
* If Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels are ever realized in movie or miniseries form, McKean should be on his short list of possible directors.
Some reviewers will likely opine that MirrorMask is too dark or scary for kids, but as a parent I tend to think that’s selling our kids short. We want to keep children protected from the evils of the world, so we bubble wrap them in sanitized movies populated with cute characters that spout rapid-fire, but hollow, quips. Many of today’s kids movies have become well-oiled machines that push all the right buttons but never really challenge the viewer’s imagination or intellect. MirrorMask’s protagonist deals with issues that most of us would rather sweep under the rug. Helena must cope with her guilt about wishing things that she didn’t really mean. In the midst of her inner and outer quest, she has to confront her darker side, another self that isn’t particularly nice or considerate, but still a part of the whole. By keeping its audience a little on edge throughout, MirrorMask respects kids’ intelligence and resilience to embrace a character grappling with her ambivalence. It’s a formula that might seem a bit off-putting to some, but will likely entrance many others. While it’s a bit rough around the edges, MirrorMask ultimately soars thanks to witty dialogue and a wealth of imagination.