MirrorMask (2005) / Fantasy-Drama

MPAA Rated: PG for themes and scary images
Running Time: 101 min.

Cast: Stephanie Leonidas, Gina McKee, Rob Brydon, Jason Barry, Dora Bryan, Robert Llewellyn, Stephen Fry
Director: Dave McKean
Screenplay: Neil Gaiman

Review published February 12, 2006

The first full-fledged big screen collaboration for longtime creative partners Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman, MirrorMask continues many themes and ideas that the two men had pioneered in their work as creators of comic books and other narrative forms.  While this movie shows that they both have a potentially great future in the world of movies, with creativity and imagery rivaling almost anything that Hollywood has been able to produce, they make the mistake of not approaching filmmaking any different than they have their graphic novels.  Comic books have always been more of an artistic medium, emphasizing lean characterizations, minimalist dialogue, and a high quotient of art.  Movies are more plot driven, and while Gaiman and McKean do a decent job in setting up the basic premise of the film, the plot gets lost in the shuffle between each impressively rendered special effects showcase. 

Stephanie Leonidas (Yes, Wall of Silence) stars as 15-year-old Helena, born into a family of circus performers, and as wonderful as that might seem to an outsider, she secretly longs for a normal, stable life.  Tensions begin to mount between the precocious Helena and her parents, but things change when Helena's mother, Joanne (McKee, Croupier) becomes hospitalized with a potentially fatal illness.  With a lot on her mind, Helena "wakens" to find herself in a strange land that appears to be of her own making, full of people in her life and designs she has previously conceived of.  However, there's no easy way out of this parallel universe, save for a quest to find the fabled MirrorMask, which appears to hold the key to everything she might hold dear. 

MirrorMask is a sumptuously crafted piece of flowing art design, done by Jim Henson Productions, fittingly enough -- it was Henson's studio that brought forth a similarly premised film in the 1980s, Labyrinth.  As the storyline changes into the dream world, the special effects and wondrous creatures designed by McKean take hold of the film, which are beautiful to behold, even grotesque, and all painstakingly detailed.  In fact, the visual elements are so strong, they almost command at least one viewing for audiences that love works of fantasy, particularly those attracted by art and costume design.

For all of its technical brilliance, what MirrorMask lacks is an emotional core.  A girl fighting for the potential fate of her ailing mother should have had much more of a rooting interest, and yet, there is a detached quality to the film that keeps emotions almost completely at bay.  Part of the problem has to do with Gaiman's fanciful and surreal writing style.  As a writer, Gaiman's gift for words and ideas is often brilliant, but here, he is handcuffed by only being able to write dialogue for his characters.  For all of Gaiman's prodigious talents, capturing the essence of his characters through dialogue alone hasn't been a real strong suit of his. 

That's not to say it's Gaiman's fault at all, as it is generally the director that sets the pace and tone of the film.  Unfortunately, McKean appears to be so enlivened by creating this mystical world where anything can happen, the characters take a backseat to the richly designed creatures and artwork.  It also doesn't quite help that most of the supporting characters are either wearing masks or are other-worldly creatures altogether, making it difficult to capture emotional elements through voice patterns alone.  Stephanie Leonidas does manage to turn in a very good performance, despite the difficulties of acting to environs that are created in post-production. 

While there is a disconnection present between the heart and mind of the overall story, ultimately, MirrorMask is just too intelligent and creative in scope to dismiss outright.  It's easy to see that this is the kind of film that will eventually be regarded as a cult classic, and certainly there will most likely be an audience out there that thinks this to be utterly brilliant in every way.  I won't argue against these feelings, except to say that, while I concede that McKean's film is a real accomplishment in terms of aesthetics, most of the time I spent watching the movie was in admiring the look and sound of it, instead of really caring about the plight of Helena and her ailing mother. 

Visually rich yet emotionally vacant, MirrorMask proves to be a worthwhile experience for escaping into an artistic world bizarre.  If only the creators would have worked as hard on the story and development of their characters as they had on each individual little creature, perhaps we'd have a masterpiece to rave about, instead of just an alluring, ambitious oddity.  MirrorMask proves to be just like looking into a mirror itself -- the images shown are lifelike and vivid in every detail, but the humanity we see is merely a reflection - a two-dimensional representation with no depth or soul of its own. 

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo