Appellate Judge James A. Stewart discovers that it's Neil Gaiman's world and we're barely even living in it as he watches this low-budget, high-tech fantasy.
Our review of MirrorMask (Blu-Ray), published November 18th, 2008, is also available.
"I knew there was something familiar about the houses here. They all look like things I drew."—Helena, in the City of Light
"What kind of a thing is a Mirrormask?" Helena asks.
"Well, it's—it's a—it's, um—You know, it's the…"
What kind of movie is Mirrormask? Well, it's—it's a—it's, um—You know it's the…
It's hard to describe, but I'd better do better than that!
Facts of the Case
Mirrormask ably brings to life the flotsam (including flying fish, talking chickens, and molting books) floating through the mind of multiple Hugo and Stoker award-winning writer Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere), responsible for the book American Gods and comics such as Death: The High Cost of Living. Long-time Gaiman collaborator Dave McKean directs and designs the production, bringing it to life with a familiar, yet unexpected, shape.
The movie opens with two socks—a white sock and a black sock representing light and shadows—fighting it out against some kind of faded paper background. Next we see a freaky-faced mime taking a turn at a ticket window. We pull back on the socks to see that they're on the feet of Helena (Stephanie Leonidas, Empire) and the faded paper is the drawings that line the walls of the trailer she lives in. Helena, it turns out, is a circus performer and she's not ready to go on yet. Actually, she's not ready to go on ever, as she tells her mother who is pounding on the trailer door.
"All of those kids in there want to run away and join the circus," Mum (Gina McKee, Croupier, Notting Hill) chides.
"I want to run away and join real life," Helena fires back.
Still, the show must go on and Helena must do her juggling act. As she's leaving the ring, Helena sees her mother being taken away in an ambulance. Soon she's staying with Aunt Nan (Dora Bryan, The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery) while her father Morris (Rob Brydon, Little Britain) does a juggling act of his own, caught between the demands of the circus troupe—which wishes to go on to Scotland so that the show may go on—and his desire to stay with his hospitalized wife as she undergoes surgery. Morris is also trying to reassure his daughter, but his awkward words only seem to intensify her fear and frustration.
As her Mum undergoes an operation, Helena's dreams are a blur of images, juxtaposing the surgery with circus scenes. Helena goes to investigate a noise. At first it looks like she's stumbled on an impromptu circus rehearsal, but it soon morphs into something more sinister. Helena is saved from death by the masked Valentine (Jason Barry, Beyond Re-Animator) and immediately has to contend with a Sphinx who likes to nibble on books. She's in the City of Light, in an alternate universe that—wouldn't you know it?—looks a lot like her drawings.
Everyone wears a mask here, except this strange newcomer. "How do you know if you're happy or sad without a mask?" Valentine asks. Too bad Helena didn't don a mask, because her face looks familiar—and she's carted off to the palace, where the prime minister (Brydon again) accuses her of stealing a charm but quickly realizes that she's not the princess they seek.
"Look at her. She's not her. I mean, she's not her," he says.
It seems the princess from the City of Shadows has made off with a charm, leaving the Queen of the City of Light (McKee again, in white wig) in a deep sleep as the city becomes enveloped by shadows. It seems like a quest is in the making and, since "you can't come into these quest things without your manager present," Helena is taking Valentine along in search of the mysterious charm that will save the city, a quest that will put her in the path of the Queen of the City of Shadows (McKee yet again, in dark wig).
One more thing. Every time Helena looks through a window, she sees this girl who looks like her, but it can't be—or can it?
One of the impressive aspects of Mirrormask is that the "real" world of Helena at the circus looks as surreal as the alternate-universe City of Light. At the circus, everyone wears grotesque masks, foreshadowing Helena's visit to the strange city. Everything's shot from an odd angle, whether it's the Cirque du Soleil-style performances of her father's circus or the large, imposing apartment block where Aunt Nan lives, as the cameras track Helena through her life and quick cuts help viewers board the disorientation express.
Thus, when Helena enters the computer-generated alternate City of Light, there were just a few minutes when I thought I was seeing that "real" world through an odd prism—until the spider with the giant eye and the catlike Sphinx turned up. Then everything changes and the characters truly seem to be inhabiting that pen-and-ink world on yellowed paper that Helena drew. Awkward, clown-like movements and chases and action scenes featuring lots of graceful gymnastics tie the City of Light back to Helena's surreal life in the circus.
Stephanie Leonidas and Jason Barry as the two questers deliver performances good enough to remind us that there are indeed humans in this CGI showcase of a movie. Leonidas plays Helena as an unstoppably confident, inquisitive force as she seeks the charm that can save the City of Light, while Barry makes Valentine believable as a frightened conniver, even (or perhaps especially) while hiding behind a mask for most of the movie. Leonidas brings a subtle serious side to life as well in touching scenes with Brydon and McKee. Sharp listeners will hear the voices of Stephen Fry (Jeeves and Wooster), Lenny Henry (Chef), and Robert Llewellyn (Red Dwarf) in cameos.
Production designer and director Dave McKean, at the helm of his first feature-length movie, puts a lot of flourishes in, both visually and thematically, but manages to harness the CGI razzle-dazzle into setting a foreboding mood, establishing character, and furthering the story. The effects are seamless, so that I often didn't know whether I was watching live actors, CGI magic, or the puppetry of the Jim Henson Company, which made this movie. His skill has already been rewarded: McKean won the Youth Jury Award at the Locarno International Film Festival in 2005 and his film was an audience award winner at the Sarasota Film Festival and the Utopiales Film Festival. From the selfish point of view of a Terry Pratchett fan, I found myself hoping he might try Mort as his next feature-length project.
The extras are devoted mainly to showing audiences the seams in the special effects, showing actress Leonides in harness against a blue screen during the "Flight of the Monkeybirds," looking at each step in the "Giants Development" from initial concept to compositing the final shots, and answering questions in commentaries, interviews, and Q&A sessions (actually a composite of Q&A sessions at several festivals, not just the San Diego Comic-Con as billed on the back cover). If you're thinking about where CGI technology can take movies, you'll want to hear McKean's thoughts in his interview segment. If you just want more nifty visuals, check out "Day 16," which compresses a day of filming with time-lapse photography and puts it on a split screen with the finished product, to musical accompaniment and facts about the movie flashing on the screen, and the "Poster and Cover Art Gallery," which shows the various posters and promotional faces of Mirrormask.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack excellently captures the music, a sort of chamber music with an otherwordly touch, and ambient noises of the surreal worlds of Mirrormask. However, at times the dialogue volume dropped a little low. I didn't check out all the foreign-language tracks and subtitles, but I'm impressed that they put so many on there.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At times, the movie looks like it should be hanging on an art gallery wall instead of gracing your television screen with the surreal visuals taking over. The final product is good, but sometimes pretentious.
Although the PG-rated movie isn't particularly objectionable, the intense surrealism probably makes it too scary for little tykes, though older children and teens likely will enjoy the story, which ultimately concerns testing limits and finding autonomy.
By the way, IMDb puts the budget at a modest $4 million, although the finished product looks like much, much more. It left me with a good feeling about what can be done with CGI.
Not guilty, although viewers might be looking around to see if any fish are floating past for a few days afterwards.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman
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