Movie Review: Mirrormask

Authored October 2005

I took my lovely bride on a date and saw “Mirrormask” at the local art house (which in our case has better screens and seating than most megaplexes).

The film is written by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (if you don’t know who they are… well, you should), directed by McKean (his directorial debut) and features effects by the Jim Henson Company.

The story is rather simplistic (it is a fairy tale) but not overly so. Young Helena, a child of circus owners, escapes the extravagance of her life through drawing. Her sketches (all, of course, done by McKean) paper the walls (and floors and ceilings) of any space she considers hers.

Shortly after a family crisis erupts she awakens to find herself in the world of her drawings. She is attacked and drawn into the wake of the self-important juggler, Valentine.

The Black Queen of the Dark Lands has, she discovers, been attacking the Land of Light. Unfortunately the White Queen has been stricken with an unnatural sleep and cannot defend her kingdom. Helena, now drawing Valentine in her wake, accepts the task of discovering and finding the unknown charm which will awaken the White Queen.

From the first frame the film is utterly compelling. Dave McKean’s art work is translated beautifully and meaningfully to the screen in an orgy of techniques and styles. Analog camera effects work seamlessly with digital effects. CGI creations flow naturally with animatronics and prosthetics.There is a level of (and attention to) detail unheard of in most films.

There are several laugh out loud funny moments but they seemed somehow frantic as if the film were veering someplace else. There is no cohesive thread to these moments which make them somewhat jarring when they occur despite the fact that they are, in fact, laugh out loud funny.

There are also moments of tremendous emotional depth. I found the rending the Orbiting Giants especially moving and the delirious, leaping flight of Monkey Birds awe-inspiring. The many (and oh so wonderfully constructed) sphinxes provided elements of both humor and a curiously defined undercurrent of dread.

The characters perfectly reflect McKean’s mixed media work. Characters are insane collections of traditional puppetry, human actors, 2D animation and 3D computer work. The film is presented in gauzy, soft focus (indicative of the fantasy in which Helena is partaking) which only serves to cement those many disparate elements.

The acting is perfectly aligned with the film with the four major actors handling several roles (a fact which has led some to wrongly discount “Mirrormask” as a “Wizard of Oz” want-to-be).

The audio is less perfect but still more than adequate to the task. Much of the music is reminiscent of small-band circus music and is perfectly suited to the visual style. However more than once the score was simply too loud and drowned out lines of dialog.

I warn you that while this is nominally a children’s story much of the imagery is dark and even disturbing in places. While there is no blood or graphic violence the dream-state violence that does occur seems to me more likely to affect small children. You may want to watch it first yourself before you let the kids watch it.

Kids (and adults) may also have issues with the pace of the film which is uneven at best. Like a dream the story unfolds in fits and starts which I found intriguing but others may very well find utterly annoying.

My only real complaint however would be that the film ends somewhat abruptly with no real exploration of the ramifications of the events depicted. The story in the “real world”, which is built up well initially, doesn’t ultimately connect as intimately as we expect it will with the events we’ve experienced in Helena’s world. And that’s a small shame.

It does little to mar the experience however. At some level this is a film which doesn’t explicitly need a story. It’s just that insanely beautiful to watch.

I also have to mention the credit sequences. Both the opening and closing sequences were stunningly done. It’s worth it to stay and watch the end credits (there are no extra scenes but they are beautiful). It was also interesting that the credits actually detail which animators worked on which specific sequences.

I believe this is a film that will inspire strong feelings in anybody who watches it. Unfortunately I think many of those feelings will be confusion and annoyance. This is definitely a movie you’ll either love or hate.

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