Art house films almost invariably seem to be dramas. At least I’ve never encountered a buddy cop indie. MirrorMask daringly attempts to break out of this genre prison by bringing bizarre underground sensibilities to that most conventional and commercial breed of film: the family picture.
Somewhere within MirrorMask beats the heart of an engaging coming of age fantasy tale similar to The Neverending Story, but it is regrettably buried deep beneath the drab exterior of a dreary art film. MirrorMask joins Sin City as the only comic book films that have truly attempted to duplicate the look of the source material. Only this time that source is not a traditional superhero romp, but the warped imaginations of renowned writer Neil Gaiman and artist Dave McKean, veterans of many joint projects such as the Sandman graphic novels. With the assistance of the Jim Henson Company, they have created a unique universe in which McKean’s eccentric artwork comes to life through CGI and green screen. If only a decent budget had been available, this might have produced awe inspiring rather than merely admirable results.
Joanne (Gina McKee) and Morris (Rob Brydon) run a small avant-garde circus in England that is struggling to survive. Their teenage daughter and fellow performer Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) has grown tired of life under the big top and tells her mother so in no uncertain terms. Shortly thereafter Joanne is hospitalized with a serious illness, and the circus’s future becomes even more precarious. One night Helena wakes up to find herself transported to a mysterious dream world, where the City of Light is in danger of being overrun by the sinister Land of Shadows. The city’s queen (McKee) has fallen into a coma, and the prime minister (Brydon) is frantically searching for the charm to wake her so she can save the city. Reminded of her mother’s plight, Helena enlists the help of the flaky musician Valentine (Jason Barry) and resolves to find the charm. She soon discovers that her involvement in this strange world runs very deep indeed.
As with the recent Star Wars films, the British cast is full of capable actors who struggle with the awkwardness of green screen. Leonidas is very likeable as the strong-willed but kind artist Helena, and her bubbly presence helps to brighten the gloomy surroundings. Her grasp on the serious moments is less sound, but with time she could well blossom into another Keira Knightley. McKee and Brydon make the best of their limited dual roles, the former reluctantly antagonizing Helena with expectations of responsibility and the latter clowning around or overcome by passiveness. Perhaps the biggest revelation is Barry, whose cowardly fast-talking Valentine displays a ready knack for comedy that would be right at home in Monty Python.
Some of the dialogue has the potential to be genuinely amusing, but the delivery is rarely on the mark. In the best sequence Helena and Valentine, pursued by an insidious sentient oil slick, hurriedly try to get information from a giant stone creature that speaks excruciatingly slowly. They keep trying to finish its ponderous sentences for it, and finally Valentine exclaims in exasperation, “No adjectives!”
There’s little action to be had, save for the thrilling chase when Helena is spirited away by evil creatures Tarzan style through a sort of mammoth jungle gym with friendly “monkeybirds” in pursuit.
MirrorMask is a cautionary tale that urges children to be responsible family members, and parents to give their offspring due freedom. Nice messages to be sure, but I am left to wonder who will be in the audience to receive them. MirrorMask is too childish to really captivate adults, and yet so slow and lugubrious that children will either be bored stiff or need therapy afterward. One of the producers says the film was greenlighted because of the continued public interest in The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, so perhaps he is hoping to pull in the fantasy crowd.
Of course fans of McKean’s art who want to see it in motion should be enchanted with the complex tapestry woven here. His drawings account for many of the backgrounds, and the foreground is dominated by a variety of oddball CGI creatures, including a sinister one-eyed mechanical spider and what looks like a close relative of Mr. Potato Head. Is there something the Mrs. doesn’t know?
Although I found some of the design interesting, for the most part it was too abstract, simple, or Photoshop-heavy for my taste. The CGI and green screen work are not too shabby for the film’s measly $4 million budget, but neither are they good enough to hide the film’s cheapness. More troublingly MirrorMask wages war on color, banning it to isolated outbursts while the screen is awash with dull grays and browns that suck the life from it.
The morose and discordant score does little to help matters, establishing a funereal atmosphere. I’m not sure if the sound mix is too complex for my simple television, but the volume level seemed to drop way down for some of the dialogue.
The special features include a brief gallery of promotional artwork, a very detailed commentary with writer Gaiman and fledgling director McKean, and The Making of MirrorMask. There are interviews with Gaiman, McKean, the producers, the cast, and the production staff. It’s interesting to learn about Gaiman and McKean’s background, but most of the other comments are just praise being heaped upon them. Next there’s a neat split-screen feature in which you can see a finished scene on one side and on the other speeded up footage of the same scene being filmed in the studio. Finally there’s a lengthy and highly entertaining Q&A session with Gaiman and McKean in which they tell amusing anecdotes about their careers.
If you enjoy quirky artwork and feel that Corpse Bride wasn’t gloomy enough then MirrorMask may supply modest entertainment. To the rest of us it stands as a bold but failed experiment, whose reach far exceeds its grasp. If viewed as McKean’s film school final it suggests great things to come. I would only urge he remember when directing an attractive lead like Leonidas that Ms. Knightley didn’t reach the top by wearing full body nightgowns.