2005Director: Dave McKean
Cast: Stephanie Leonidas, Gina McKee, Rob Brydon, Jason Barry
hen some of us were kids, we used to dream of running away from “real life” and joining the circus. MirrorMask, a wondrous film written by novelist Neil Gaiman (author of Sandman and Neverwhere) and director/illustrator/frequent collaborator Dave McKean, introduces us to 15-year-old Helena, who dreams of running away from the circus to join real life.
Weary of juggling and perhaps a bit embarrassed by her unusual roots, Helena (Stephanie Leonidas, in what I believe is her feature film debut, and an impressive one at that) begins to rebel against her parents who are managers and performers in the circus. After a particularly nasty throw-down with her mother (Gina McKee), Helena carelessly mutters “I wish I were” in answer to her mother’s “You’ll be the death of me.” Like a kid’s worst nightmare, mom is suddenly stricken with some unidentified illness and carted off via ambulance mere moments after the fight and right before she’s set to take the stage.
Wracked with guilt and confronted with the perilous future of both her mother’s health and the fragile infrastructure of the circus, Helena plunges ever deeper into the self-created world of her elaborate drawings which fill the walls of her bedroom and bringing hand-drawn get well cards daily to her mother. The night before her mother’s delicate surgery, Helena falls deeply asleep and finds herself quite lost in the world of her own imagining. Once there she finds a woman, the queen of light (also played by Gina McKee) in an enchanted sleep who cannot be woken because an evil version of Helena, an Anti-Helena, has escaped this dream world to run amuck in Helena’s reality. Anti-Helena is the daughter of the queen of shadows (Gina McKee, again), who has offered a bounty for her daughter’s return and who spends her time covering the world in shadow until she is found. Enlisting the aid of a juggling local named Valentine (Jason Barry), Helena sets about trying to save this strange new world and return to her own by finding a powerful charm, the MirrorMask. The MirrorMask, when worn by Helena, promises to restore balance to the world of shadow and light and open a doorway back to her reality.
Remarkably detailed and breathtakingly beautiful, MirrorMask plunges the viewer headlong into a disorienting surrealist landscape of disparate textures, unearthly creatures and giddy dream logic that will tint and skew the real world long after you leave the theater. I’m hard-pressed to compare it to anything I’ve ever seen before, and can’t remember the last time I was so affected simply by the look of a film. It’s quite an amazing journey, even if a bit heavy-handed at times, playing as it does like an enormous guilt trip (wish ill on your mother and who knows how many worlds you might destroy!).
Gaiman and McKean birthed MirrorMask while spending time at the late Jim Henson’s family home in London, surrounded by Henson’s creature-shop artifacts, which reads like a magical fairy tale in itself. Add to that the fact that it was made with a mere four million dollars, which most directors today lose running for the bus, and you have nothing short of a miracle.
Originally a proposition from Columbia TriStar by way of the Jim Henson Company, McKean and Gaiman were asked to come up with a family-friendly film in the vein of Labyrinth under the tentative title “The Curse of the Goblin King”. Before long, the duo was penning an original work that McKean is quoted as saying contained “…no curses, goblins, or kings”. What they came up with instead was a masterwork of live action and animation set against an amazing digital backdrop. Rich with Sandman’s trademark dark sepia tones and thick with McKean’s freaky, surrealist style, it’s a movie that has to be seen to be believed, and seen on a big screen at that. MirrorMask’s visual landscape, though impressive in any format, demands the kind of immersion that can only come with a trip to the cinema. Which is why it’s a shame that the film is in such limited release. But my advice is to range as far and wide as necessary to catch this one. MirrorMask is one hell of a delicious feast for the eyes, one you won’t soon forget.
By: Jen Cameron
Published on: 2005-10-26