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2nd Mar 06
A young girl from Brighton journeys into a magical world of her own imagination where she must search for the fabled MirrorMask.
An original British fantasy adventure directed by renowned graphic artist Dave McKean, co-written by McKean’s frequent collaborator (‘Sandman’ and ‘Neverwhere’ creator Neil Gaiman) and made under the aegis of the legendary Jim Henson Company, MirrorMask sounds almost too good to be true. Such an auspicious line up of talent brings with it the inevitable weight of almost impossible to fulfil expectations. Advance word from various festivals has been positive, and the arrival a couple of months back of a fantastically spooky trailer featuring the film’s heroine being serenaded by robots miming to a spectral cover of The Carpenter's ‘Close to You’ only served to heighten the anticipation. Could McKean deliver a contemporary fantasy classic that would appeal to fans of his and Gaiman's rich comic history as well as older audiences nostalgic for another Dark Crystal or Labyrinth?
The answer is yes, well sort of. I desperately want to be positive about MirrorMask for all sorts of reasons. The first is that I’m a huge fan of Gaiman and McKean's work particularly their masterful ‘Sandman’ comic series. Secondly, this is a new British fantasy film, clearly a labour of love and, while boasting the technical support of the Henson company, made for a whole lot less than the budget of, say, a Tim Burton flick or the last Harry Potter. Even more impressively, rather than relying on an army of computer animators and digital FX wizards, Mckean assembled a close-knit team of seventeen animators (many of them recent graduates). That the film looks and sounds as impressive as it does is something of a miracle.
MirrorMask is the story of Helena, a clever, restless 15-year-old girl living in Brighton and working for her parents (Gina McKee and Rob Brydon) who run the local circus. Tired of living in this unreal fantasy world, Helena is desperate to break free from the shackles of family life. A talented artist, the walls of her tatty caravan are covered in drawings imagining a more exciting existence in an alternate universe.
After a family row that ends up with her mum in hospital, a guilty and grief stricken Helena falls into a deep sleep and awakens in a literal alternate reality, the Dark Lands, which appear both alien and yet strangely familiar. A vivid landscape of flipsides and mirror images, the Dark Lands are populated with all manner of bizarre and mythical creatures – giants, monkeybirds (!) and deadly sphinxes. In her quest Helena is joined by Valentine, a cynical tour guide who tells her about the Mirrormask of the title - a talismanic object of unbelievable power that can wake the sleeping Queen of Light (Gina McKee again) and restore the Dark lands to light again.
From its beautifully realised opening, with budget-Fellini style credits in which scenes of the circus performers are juxtaposed with Helena’s/McKean’s drawings of the Dark Lands, it’s clear that the 18 months of post-production involved in bringing Mirror Mask to the screen have paid off. McKean and his team have, for the most part, realised a startling blend of live action, blue screen and digital animation. Some of the landscapes are so visually rich there seems almost too much to take in at once.
So what are the problems with MirrorMask? For me, the major weak link is the story. Apparently it was developed by McKean and Gaiman over a couple of days and it shows, being a rather too straightforward rites-of-passage fable - a conventional patchwork quilt of influences, most especially Alice in Wonderland and Labyrinth.
The build up is handled with great confidence and hints at real, impending danger – but too many weird, whimsical characters (voiced by various British comedians) hold up the story and derail Helena’s journey, rather than adding to it. This is OK in the comics realm, where there is time to indulge, but it doesn’t work quite as well in a feature. Also, given the history of McKean and Gaiman – and that twisted trailer - I was expecting something odder, darker, and more bizarre. At times, despite the outlandish visuals, MirrorMask is just a bit too, well,…ordinary.
As for Valentine - Helena’s whimsical comedy sidekick - he really is going to split audiences, Jar Jar Binks style. Personally I found him irritating beyond belief, tiring of his shtick at least two minutes into his appearance. By the end I was praying for him to devoured by a monkeybird...
Thankfully lead actress Stephanie Leonidas delivers a far more impressive performance. A spooky dead ringer for a young Helena Bonham Carter, her Helena is likeable and naturalistic, and even though she has some occasionally stilted dialogue to get through, she remains believable throughout.
I really hope the film gets a wide release - though the fact that it seems too dark for younger viewers and not quite dark enough for older genre fans makes it difficult to see how it will find a large, appreciative audience. It certainly seems already destined to become a cult movie and I would wager that, along with Corpse Bride will probably be every 13-year-old Goth girl’s favourite film of the year.
MirrorMask is a striking first feature with the failings one associates with debutante work. Visually, it works miracles on a meagre budget, and I have no doubt that with stronger material behind him, McKean is going to do great things in the film realm. A massively prolific artist, it may be advisable for him to work with someone else’s material for his next big screen outing.
One final thing; however the film fares theatrically, it’s bound to be a doozy of a DVD given the production history and a MirrorMask picture book is in the works that will contain the 1700 drawings produced for the film.
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