Don't watch MirrorMask next to a bookcase. All of Judge Gordon Sullivan's books flew away.
Our review of MirrorMask, published February 20th, 2006, is also available.
Enter A World Where Dreams Are Real
I'll probably be branded as a heretic, but I have to say this: I don't like Dave McKean's artwork. With the lone exception of his contribution to Stephen King's Wizard and Glass, I've found his work too chaotic and just difficult to look at. So I was not particularly thrilled (as many comic fans were) when it was announced he would be helming a CGI/live-action hybrid film. However, the involvement of Neil Gaiman and the visually impressive trailer initially got me interested in MirrorMask. After viewing this stunning Blu-ray of the film, I can say that MirrorMask is visually stunning and sure to appeal to fans of McKean's artwork. However, I suspect that its appeal won't be much broader because of an overly simplistic story.
Facts of the Case
Helena (Stephanie Leonidas, Yes) is the daughter of circus owners who are a little down on their luck. Unlike other children, however, Helena wants to run away from the circus, not to it. When her mother (Gina McKee, Atonement) collapses before a performance, the circus is stuck in town. This leads Helena to begin dream of an alternate world, one where there is a land of Dark and a land of Light. Through treachery, the land of Light lost its queen, so it is being attacked by the forces of darkness. Only Helena can find the MirrorMask and restore the balance of power between the two lands. The journey to find the Mask will also help Helena come to terms with her life in the circus.
I don't like most of Dave McKean's artwork because he makes no concessions to the viewer. He fearlessly mixes media, from paint to charcoal, and then uses digital manipulation and photography to create chaotic images that are often striking, but difficult to look at very long (at least for me). However, the best parts of his style (the keen eye for juxtaposition and the fearless mixing of media) translate very effectively to the big screen. Because he has to accommodate live actors, some of the excesses of his two-dimensional work are reined in.
It's no exaggeration to say that MirrorMask is one of the most visually impressive films I've ever seen. The film places live actors in a setting almost entirely created with special effects, both traditional and computer generated. This is nothing new in the world of filmmaking. However, the world itself is new. In a kind of Terry Gilliam meets Lewis Carroll style, MirrorMask creates a compelling world that is recognizable, but distinct from our own: everyone wears elaborate masks to show emotions, books can fly back to their shelves, and sphinxes with human heads wander the landscape. It's seems that McKean's painterly eye for detail ensured that all aspects of every frame of the film were constructed for maximum impact.
There is a danger in creating a film that relies so much on special effects; it's very easy for such film to look dated almost before they've hit home video, as the technology arms race brings more and more impressive effects to the screen. Although it's been three years since MirrorMask was released, McKean's unique vision keeps the film from looking dated, despite the advances in computer technology. Because the film doesn't try to achieve a photoreal quality, it still looks good because the viewer isn't constantly comparing it to reality. Also, even the "limitations" of the technology work in the film's favor. For instance, the face on the sphinx is pixelated and obviously limited in resolution. In another context, it would look like a bad special effect, but in the world McKean has carefully created, it just looks like another aspect of the film.
And speaking of visuals, this is the way to see MirrorMask. I didn't notice a single compression artifact throughout the film, and every frame looked sharp and extremely detailed. Although it wouldn't be my first choice for a reference disc, this Blu-ray certainly shows the potential for the format. The rest of the disc is equally impressive, with a solid audio track that balances the dialogue with the film's (pretty cheesy) jazz-inflected score. All of the extras are ported over from the DVD, and they offer tremendous insight into the film's production. There's a commentary track with Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean that includes production info, story ideas, and general discussion between the two collaborators. There are also standalone interviews with both, as well as the cast and crew. There are also numerous featurettes that cover the production, including the fantastic "monkeybird" sequence.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have to say I'm tired of stories where a child has to go on a quest in a strange land to discover an object which will restore the balance of power in a kingdom. It's been done, and it's been done well, so storytellers should perhaps move on. In that way, MirrorMask unsurprisingly reminded me of a whole host of other children's films. I often thought of The Neverending Story, Labyrinth, and Dark Crystal while watching the film. Despite the amazing visuals I never once found myself wrapped up in the story, which is a shame because the characters and actors were both very compelling. But with such a tired story, it's hard to generate interest. Obviously, other will disagree and claim that the film has a timeless story, but I just couldn't get into it.
For a first-time director, MirrorMask is an amazing film. Although the story is a little old, every moment of the film holds numerous visual treats. For the Blu-ray equipped, the film is certainly worth a rental for the sheer power of the visuals alone. Although there is no added content for those who own the standard DVD edition, the presentation is sufficiently impressive to warrant an upgrade.
MirrorMask is guilty of melding new visuals to an old story. The court admonishes director McKean to choose more interesting material for his second time behind the camera.
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