Mirrormask (United Kingdom/United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

How best to encapsulate my feelings about MirrorMask? What about: visually active, but emotionally inert? A lot of descriptors are apt: unorthodox, stylistically inventive, a labor of love, and (perhaps most importantly) a failed experiment. The central evident flaw is that, although the film may look and feel unlike other movies, the limited pleasure derived from its appearance goes only so far. When the time comes for classical elements like story and character to take over, they are unequal to the task. MirrorMask is built on a foundation of stock plot elements. The narrative is simplistic and lacking in energy, and the characters are sketched instead of fully formed.

Fantasy stories typically fall into one of several easily defined subcategories. MirrorMask is properly classified as a "quest," the most popular of these. (The Lord of the Rings is a quest tale.) Borrowing heavily from The Wizard of Oz, and to a lesser extent from Alice in Wonderland and The Chronicles of Narnia, co-creators Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (collaborating with The Jim Henson Group, who made The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth in this genre during the 1980s) develop a simplistic tale of good and evil, and of a quest that doesn't have many interesting intermediate points between its beginning and its conclusion. MirrorMask takes place in a cold, hallucinogenic world that gradually develops a claustrophobic feel. After a while of looking at all the fascinating visuals, you begin to wonder: "Is this all there is?" Once that question becomes a certainty, the film's appeal takes a nosedive. No movie can survive on digital effects alone, no matter how uniquely they are employed.

Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) is the 15-year old daughter of circus parents. Her mother (Gina McKee) is a performer and her father (Rob Brydon) is the troupe's manager. The lifestyle doesn't appeal to Helena, who has created her own imaginary fantasy world as a means of escape from the juggling and drudgery. When her mother falls seriously ill and requires surgery, Helena finds herself in a living version of the realm she envisioned in drawings. Is she dreaming or has she been transported? It doesn't much matter, since she can't escape. The Dark Lands, which are inhabited by a variety of weird denizens (including sphinxes and flying cats), are ruled by two opposing monarchs: the Queen of Light and the Queen of Shadow (both also played by Gina McKee). The former has fallen into a coma is it becomes Helena's duty to find the MirrorMask, which will awaken the Queen of Light and keep the Queen of Shadow at bay. Helena is aided in her adventure by Valentine (Jason Berry), a companion and advisor, and impeded by a version of herself as the Dark Princess.

In The Wizard of Oz, we travel with Dorothy to a world that contains sinister elements, but also has room for lightness and cheer. The Dark Lands, on the other hand, are bleak. They are a magic place, but not a magical one. There are a lot of ideas present, few of which are fully fleshed out. The dialogue occasionally crackles and there are flashes of dark humor, but those are flourishes, not the main ingredients. More thought seems to have been put into how the film should look than what it should be about. Shot in a "digital studio," MirrorMask represents one of the new breed of movies that uses real actors in computer animated sets. It works as well here as in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but the story isn't as engaging. This is Gaiman and McKean's attempt to bring a comic book world (the medium with which they are most comfortable) to the screen. Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller tried something similar with Sin City, to better effect.

My sense is that MirrorMask will gain a cult following. The film stands up reasonably well on multiple viewings. Some will fall in love with the style, and thus forgive the movie its narrative failings; slow, dreamy pace; and overall lack of energy. I'm not quite that forgiving. MirrorMask captivated me for about twenty minutes, then gradually lost my attention until I found myself equally absorbed with my wristwatch and the on-screen goings-on. There are worse things than to be classified as an ambitious failure, and that's the best way to describe MirrorMask.

Mirrormask (United Kingdom/United States, 2005)

Director: Dave McKean
Cast: Stephanie Leonidas, Gina McKee, Rob Brydon, Jason Barry
Screenplay: Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean
Cinematography: Tony Shearn
Music: Iain Ballamy
U.S. Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Company
Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: 2005-09-30
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1