directed by Dave McKean
(Columbia Tristar, 2005)

It begins garishly, at an unidentified circus -- a visual assault of color and costumes, makeup and masks. Helena, daughter of the attraction's owners and major stars, doesn't want to be there -- she wants a normal life, and she resents her parents for denying her mundanity. But, after an ill-chosen wish, Helena's mother collapses and is rushed to the hospital with a serious (but never clearly identified) illness.

MirrorMask builds slowly, taking time to establish characters and situations that may allow the attentions of younger viewers to wander. Helena's world outside of the circus is drab and colorless; her sketches of another world are the only eye-catching visuals.

Then, one crystalized fiddler later, things get interesting.

Helena (Stephanie Leonidas, looking eerily like a young Helena Bonham Carter) finds herself in the world of her drawings, in what she can only suspect is a dream. It's here that the artistic vision of director Dave McKean takes hold, what with sphinxes and spiders and shadows, flying fish and jugglers and oddly formed constables on stilts. Neil Gaiman, who wrote the story with longtime partner McKean, inserts plenty of his own fantastic vision, beginning with books that, when properly insulted, will drift slowly back to their library of origin, giving a ride to anyone who happens to hop aboard.

It's a world of masks, where Helena's changeable expression marks her as a dangerous outsider -- or possibly a thieving princess who looks just like her. Stories here are important, as is the manner in which they are told. Particularly delightful is one story that illustrates itself with the contents of a magical red box, as well as another narrated and illustrated by the illustrious librarian (a brief but wonderful cameo by Stephen Fry, who is recognizable here only through his voice).

Those who hope the Jim Henson Co.'s involvement means a movie overrun by puppetry may be disappointed; it's the people, their masks and the scenery that set the visual standard here. MirrorMask is the progeny of Labyrinth and Dark Crystal, both landmark Henson productions from the 1980s, and it's the great-granddaughter of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. And there are unusual characters to meet at every turn -- for instance, it's difficult not to be impressed by the muscular monkeybirds or the drifting, slow-talking giants who guard the key. Helena's dreamy, musically enhanced makeover by a team of automatons is one of the film's creepier scenes.

Rob Brydon, who plays Helena's father in the real world, is remade here as a masked and befuddled prime minister of light. His queen, played by Gina McKee, looks remarkably like a bleached version of Helena's mother, and is trapped in a magical sleep. The dark queen (McKee again, now goth) vomits shadows that are overrunning the land -- and will destroy everything unless Helena can find and use the missing mirrormask. Her only ally is the two-toned juggler Valentine (Jason Barry), who may or may not be entirely trustworthy.

Gaiman and McKean have proven themselves to be an excellent team many times before, and they don't disappoint in MirrorMask. Abstractions, odd angles and human-faced cats abound, with CGI backgrounds adding layers of depth to Helena's hidden world. (The fact that it all came together for the remarkably low price of $4 million is nothing less than astounding.)

About halfway through watching the movie with my family, my 8-year-old daughter Molly sat up and said, "This movie does not make sense." That didn't prevent her from becoming quickly reabsorbed into the freakish imagery and story. Meanwhile, our 13-year-old was trying to decipher the logic behind certain scenes and conclusions; give it up, Vinnie, this isn't a story of logic, it's about imagination and belief, the sheer delight of seeing this meeting of Gaiman and McKean come to life. Logic aside, both children were glued to the screen 'til the credits rolled, and they wanted to watch it again. They might not understand it all, but the film has certainly opened their young minds to new ways of thinking, perceiving and interpreting.

MirrorMask might not hold the attention of the very young, but it's a movie youngsters and adults can enjoy over and over again. There are layers to explore, nuances to discover and, if you're able, books to catch in a butterfly net. MirrorMask is a landmark film that resets the bar for modern fantasy.

by Tom Knapp
17 March 2006

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