In Depth Review: MirrorMask

Directed by Dave McKean, released October 28, 2005

If I had to pick a Top Ten list of my all time favorite movies, MirrorMask would undoubtedly nab one of the spots near the top.  It’s a small movie with a big imagination, and it looks like nothing else out there. 

MirrorMask is a collaboration between author Neil Gaiman and artist/illustrator/designer Dave McKean.  This is not the first time these two have worked together; McKean has created the cover art and/or illustrated many of Gaiman’s works, including Wolves in the Walls, Coraline, and the Newbury Award winning The Graveyard Book.  And like these stories, MirrorMask, although not exactly your typical family fare, is appropriate for children, especially those in their early teens and older.

Fifteen year old Helena, like many 15 year olds, is dissatisfied with her life and dreams of “getting out”.  The twist here is, while many kids dream of running away with the circus, Helena is already there; her father runs a struggling circus, and she and her parents are performers.  Unable to see how stressful holding the family business is on her parents, Helena chafes as what she feels are unfair responsibilities, and there are clashes, especially between her and her mother.

When her mother falls mysteriously ill during a performance, however, Helena’s life changes drastically.  Her freestyle life gives way to a tenuous waiting – waiting to find out what has afflicted her mother and whether there will be a recovery, and whether or not the circus will continue.  The bright fabrics and music of the circus tents give way to the dreary projects of Brighton and the cry of scavenging gulls.  Then one night, Helena (a very artistic child) wakes up and finds herself drawn into a fantastical world, full of strange creatures, where virtually everyone wears a mask.

Soon Helena finds herself on a quest for the charm that will wake the Queen of Light, who lies in a deep sleep while a Darkness creeps into the land and threatens the very balance of the world.  She and her quirky companion Valentine must solve riddles, follow clues, and stay out of the clutches of the evil Queen of Shadows, who believes that Helena is her missing daughter, all while searching for the elusive mirrormask that will waken the Queen of Light and return Helena to her world. 

As imaginative as the story sounds, it is the look of MirrorMask that truly defines this movie.  From the color and rush of the circus, to the static feel of the bunker-like apartments in Brighton, director McKean sets us up for a journey into the visually stunning realization of a young girl’s imagination.  The world into which Helena has been transported mirrors the worlds that she doodles in her free time, which hang on loose pages tacked to her bedroom wall.  Yet this imaginary world (or is it?) is dark, and populated with strange and fantastical creatures that are weird and somewhat creepy.  (The scene with the “ladies in waiting” at the Dark Castle will keep you from listening to the Burt Bacharach standard “Close to You” without shivering ever again.)  A mix of live action and animation, McKean’s illustrations come to life in a tableau which is eerie, beautiful, occasionally amusing and sometimes touching.  Yet because the treatment is eerie, not visceral, there is a sense of impending threat rather than terror.  Frankly, it’s breathtaking.

The acting is also first rate.  Stephanie Leonidas is especially strong, giving Helena just the right mix of bravado and innocence.  Leonidas’ Helena is no pushover, but she’s also not a super hero – her circus training allows her to think quickly on her feet, but she needs help, as well.  Her performance is fresh and genuine.  Jason Barry is winning as Valentine, the juggler who befriends her at the beginning of her journey.  It’s a credit to his skill that he makes Valentine endearing even while wearing a mask for virtually the entire film.  Rob Brydon and Gina McKee round out the cast as not only Helena’s parents, but also characters in the fantasy Kingdom.  McKee, in fact, gives a chilling and yet slightly vulnerable reading to the Queen of Shadows, as well as a beatific Queen of Light.

Critics have been quick to point out that while the look of the movie is fantastic, the story seems flat and jumbled.  Obviously, these critics have strayed a long ways from comics, graphic novels, and young people’s literature, where the story is often simplistic, but the journey within the story is not.  In MirrorMask, the visuals are a good part of that journey; the best way to view the movie is to sit back and let it sweep you along with it.  Take my word for it – it’s truly enjoyable; one of my very favorite journeys of them all.

A’s all around for this absolute gem of a movie.

~ by arcticwren on January 15, 2010.

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