Review by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person
Directed by Dave McKean
Written by Neil Gaiman (story by Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman)
Starring Stephanie Leonidas, Gina McKee, Rob Brydon, Jason Barry
Both: The question of whether you should see MirrorMask is pretty easy to answer: How much do you want to spend an hour and 41 minutes inside Dave McKean's head? That's how much you'll want to see MirrorMask. (For the very small handful of you out there who are unfamiliar with McKean, he's the one who did the cover for just about every damn Neil Gaiman graphic novel, including the covers for Sandman, and children's book, among about a zillion other things.) If you've ever wanted to live in a Richard Powers painting, this is your new home. There are abstract shapes, realistic stuff; blocky, flowing, weird, sketchy, wonderful; there's something to look at, somewhere on the screen, all the damn time. This doesn't look like any other movie ever made. The opening has the same impact Yellow Submarine had in 1968. You know from minute one you're in for a ride. Visually, it's the best-designed movie in at least ten years it puts Moulin Rouge and every other movie in the shade. As in The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, every kind and look of animation thought of is used here. Jim Henson Productions were the primary producers here, and the Henson people built the dream-characters things out of Bosch, Breughel, Miro and Di Chirico (i.e., McKean's interpretations thereof) who live in the city. Wait till you see the policemen. The film occurs in such a sumptuous, astonishing, jaw-dropping landscape, that quibbles about the plot (of which there are few) are almost besides the point. Even more astonishing is the fact it was made for a paltry (by movie standards) four million dollars, every single one of which is up there on the screen.
As for the story, take one part Stephen King and Peter Straub's The Talisman, one part The NeverEnding Story, one part The Wizard of Oz, one part Coraline, one McGuffin, three plot coupons, a couple of teaspoons of Labyrinth , a dash of Dunsanyian dreamlands, and a whole fridge full of Dave McKean, and stir.
Howard Waldrop: As in Kipling's "The Brushwood Boy" and Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, this story takes place (maybe) in a dream. The real-life story concerns teenage Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), who performs in her parent's small circus somewhere between Cirque du Soleil and something Jerry Lewis, Fellini and Jacques Tati would have collaborated on and doesn't get along with her mother (Gina McKee), who promptly collapses from (probably) brain cancer. The dream-movie takes place the night her mom is being operated on.
In the dream-movie, the queen (Mom in a blonde wig) has been put into a Snow White sleep by the evil princess from the dark city (who looks just like Helena except for the black whole-eye contact lenses both she and the dark queen also Mom, this time in a dark wig and Goth setup wear). The evil princess has also changed places with Helena, and is continuing to fight with her dad, fuck the wrong guys and burn her drawings of the city in which the dream take place. The McGuffin is the search for the MirrorMask, which is supposed to make everything hunky dory, in a way the audience really doesn't understand, and by pulling the princess back to her world and vice versa, to reestablish the status quo ante, as in the manner of all capitalist movies.
The dark queen coughs bats that turn into spider-cameras (perfect dream logic) to keep an eye on things. Darkness is taking over the bright City, and there are lots of refugees (to where?). This is where the Henson people do their stuff. There's a character, a half-hedgehog with an alligator snout, who is, though onscreen for two dialogue scenes, so good (and everybody knows it) that he shows up, halfway through the end-credits, waving and saying goodbye.
Lawrence Person: And now that part where Howard and I both approach the same conclusion for radically different reasons.
HW: All that being said it's way worth your money for the production-and-character-design alone I have the same trouble with this film as with most of Gaiman's writing, whether in print or comics: it leaves me pretty cold and has a distancing effect (Brecht would be proud) I find very hard to get past. Not that he and McKean don't try here; Valentine, her companion in the dream-world, is appealing and human. So's her dad and some of the circus folk. For some reason, we can't get close to Helena Leonidas is fine; it's something about the part. Or something. Gaiman and McKean know how to do a sympathetic character her mom, the hedgehog guy (and he's made of fur and wires!)* in just a few lines so why so much trouble with the main character? There are appealing/striking/interesting actors in most of the parts who look capable of anything that would have been asked of them.
LP: I have a radically different opinion of Gaiman's work than Howard does. (In the interest of Full Disclosure, I should mention that Neil was kind enough to submit to a two-and-a-half hour interview with me for Nova Express , and that just this past Monday I watched him sign books (including an inordinate number of my own) for four-and-a half hours here in Austin with an almost unworldly patience, and that he is, in my humble opinion, a fine writer and An All Around Swell Guy.) In my (admittedly limited) reading in comics/graphic novels, Sandman is second only to Alan Moore's Watchman as a work that masterfully uses the form to its full potential, Good Omens and Neverwhere would both go on my list for best fantasy novels of recent memory, and "Murder Mysteries" is a hell of a story. All that said, I think Howard is right about problems with Helena's character, but I believe they're probably the joint fault of Gaiman, McKean, and the constraints the movie was made under.
All of the previous Gaiman/McKean collaborations (or at least the one's I've read) were the result of McKean creating illustrations based on Gaiman's writing; here, the task was clearly the reverse, with the two of them using McKean's art as the basis for creating the fantasy, a situation that obviously makes the task of crafting a narrative spine both more essential and more difficult. That said, one of the problems with Helena's character is the same one with the title character in Coraline: both start off as such nice, level-headed girls that we never doubt they'll rise to best the ordeals presented them. (One petulant slip does not a bad girl make.) This both drains away the tension inherent in the possibility of a tragic ending (discussing the role of which, and both Hollywood and genre avoidance of same, would necessitate a much longer and only tangentially related essay) and denies the character the possibility of growing to meet the challenge; really, Helena only has to stretch her neck a little. Since her dreamscape, as all dreamscapes, is a figurative external manifestation of her inner state, she needs to start off from a darker place; her mother's ordeal is fine as far as it goes, but Helena needs her own katabasis.
Finally, there's McKean's direction and the constraints he's working under. For a first-time feature film director, it's a fine job, considerably more than passable, but it still falls short in ways that are always a danger for bluescreen work. Leonidas in particular seems under-directed, a real problem since she's onscreen 90% of the time. In the scenes where she's actually required to do something she's fine, but in places where she's just taking in the landscape, McKean lets her get away with The Understated Half-Smile of Bemusement about three or four times too many. Ditto many of the early, real-world scenes that stretch on somewhat longer than necessary. Part of it seems to be the hesitancy of a novice director, and part just the sheer time-compressing constraints of a film whose principal shooting had to be completed in six weeks.
Other problems: The Dream Logic under which the movie operates both enables and enervates the plot. If it's all just a dream, then things that seem illogical (such as Helena not twigging to the fact that everything in the dreamscape is based on her own drawings much earlier, or that she just passively waits around while Valentine takes Plot Coupon #2 (the key) just because she stubbed her toe) make perfect nonsense. Likewise scenes with no narrative payoff (the mask woman with all the cats). However, if it is all dream, then nothing is at stake, and thus nothing is interesting. The only way viewers can have their cake and eat it too is if some of the dreamland leaks into the waking world. There's just a touch of this in a single character at the end, but I wanted a bit more, such as one of Helena's creations appearing as incarnate in the waking world.
There are two lost opportunities that haunt this film. First, except for the frame of the swap, way too little is made of the protagonist's relationship to the dreamscape she journeys through. Not only is it a figurative external manifestation of herself, but also a literal one, a place created from her own art. She is, for all intents and purposes, this world's God (a fact even made explicit at one point), trapped within her own creation. The enormous possibilities inherent in this Incarnation ("And Helena moved her pencil across the face of the void, and there was light") are largely wasted. Drawing was the medium of the world's creation, and ideally should have been the instrument of her salvation, rather than the chase for the McGuffin. (To an extent it is, but only post facto.) Gaiman and McKean could have had Helena discover her powers to actively alter the landscape from within (most likely after katabasis) without undermining the familial redemption theme.
Second, while it would have made for a radically different movie, I can't help thinking that Helena's evil doppelganger is in fact quite a bit more interesting than Helena herself. "She's awful! She smokes and snogs rotten boys!" True, but apart from inevitable Bad Grrrl fascination, she's also someone who's a far more active character than Helena; it is, after all, her machinations that set the plot in motion. Moreover, she's someone who is a literal princess in a fantastic world who has thrown away vast (if icky) wealth and power to become a normal girl. It's a pity that her journey lacks the raw visual appeal upon which the entire movie is based, since it would potentially be far more interesting in terms of theme and narrative.
But it finally all gets back to the art. Some of it is banal (the cat lady scene), some of it pointless (most of the cat-sphinx scenes, even with the herring joke), and some of it profound (the Orbiting Giants spiraling above their towers have a power that is hard to articulate). The movie stands or falls on the art. Mostly stands.
HW: As with the The Brothers Grimm if the whole movie had been as good as its best parts, it would have been a barn-burner. We saw it in a 90-seat art-movie 4-plex, of which 25 seats had asses in them, mostly people (from the conversations I so carefully eavesdropped on) who knew who McKean and Gaiman were, and had been at the signing earlier in the week.
LP: However, unlike The Brothers Grimm, the problems here aren't too-many-cooks Hollywood bullshit. They're problems that come from the fact that you just can't make a film this idiosyncratic in Hollywood at all, and you certainly can't make one this dazzling gorgeous for $4 million, and yet somehow they've managed to do both. (They obviously did it with mirrors.) For that we're willing to cut them an awful lot of slack.
Both: What you have here is a visually breathtaking and original film with a mostly second-hand plot. It's worth your six or seven bucks for the visuals alone. It also has the best use ever of a Carpenter's song. Trust us.