If the 1980s Bowie/puppet fantasy campfest Labyrinth had been redone by British Dali fetishists with a deep love of The Wizard of Oz, the result might have been something like the ambitious but flawed MirrorMask. A joining of forces between the dark imaginations of graphic novel auteurs Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (screenwriter and director, respectively) and the technological prowess of the Jim Henson Workshop, it attempts to create a more substantive cinematic fantasy world than today's SpongeBob and Playstation-besotted kids may be used to. As such, this admittedly stupendous-looking film deserves quite a lot of credit for trying, even if the end result never quite makes it.
A central problem with MirrorMask is that the story (as will be obvious even to those not familiar with Gaiman and McKean's work on such landmark graphic novels as Sandman and Books of Magic) is something the two of them could have dashed off in one coffee-fueled afternoon. Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) is an angry teenager whose parents (Gina McKee, Rob Brydon), to her eternal dismay, run a tatty circus that takes up all their time. As a family crisis comes to a boil - Mum goes into hospital while Dad tries to keep everything from falling apart and the circus employees wonder how they're going to get paid - Helen, who'd much rather have normal parents than eccentric showpeople, falls into a dream world where she's on a quest to find the MirrorMask, a magical object that will allow her to escape the Dark Lands and return to her family. Maybe. She just has to figure out what the MirrorMask is. And what it looks like.
McKean's lack of experience as a film director shows through quite plainly in his scenes set in the real world, which are shot without much art, like a quickie TV drama, perhaps to emphasize the drabness of the world Helen has left. But in the dream world itself, the film becomes something to behold. The look would be nothing new for McKean on paper, as it's his signature: a gauzy wash of amber and gold shades, layered with lacy shadows and populated by masked, harlequin-like figures and strange, pseudo-mythical beasts. A similar look has even been used in music videos for some time. But presented on screen at feature length it's a richly immersive experience, less like peering into the looking glass than smashing right through it. The creatures and people whom Helen comes across in her quest are delightfully bizarre, like the race of apelike pigeons, a brood of menacing man-faced cats, and a library where the books want to escape and have to be brought down with a net (one that Helen picks up is called A Really Useful Book and it actually is, printing answers to her questions on blank pages).
While boldly fantastic and willing to be quite more bizarre than today's children's literature films usually allow themselves to be - more often they're just facsimiles of the same old adult product, with the multisyllabic words deleted and sex/violence edges sanded off - MirrorMask doesn't quite do its vision justice by wrapping such a sublime piece of filmic art inside an overused scrap of a plot. Both children and adult viewers will have little trouble slipping away from reality (assuming they make it through a pretty dreary slog at the start) and enjoying the carnival of strange delights on display, but once deposited back in the film's cruddy vision of reality, they will find little to relate to or care about.
Altogether it's a terminally good-looking fantasy that almost would have been better presented had it simply cut its moorings to the real world completely and flapped away on wings of darkness.
The DVD includes a commentary track from McKean and Gaiman along with a making-of featurette.
Giant bean for milady?