MirrorMask is the feature-length directorial debut for comic book artist, illustrator, and short film director Dave McKean and it is immediately recognisable as the child of his very unique vision. Brought on board by the Jim Henson Company to create a film in the tradition of Labyrinth, McKean quickly enlisted the help of his long-time friend and collaborator Neil Gaiman. The pair have worked together for over a decade now in the medium of graphic novels, the most famous example of which is of course the Sandman series, and Gaiman was keen to fit the film into his busy schedule. And thus were the core team for the film brought together.
MirrorMask's central character is a teenage girl, Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), who focuses her creative energy on fantastical drawings, but whose parents (played perfectly by Gina McKee and Rob Brydon) run a small, independent circus which Helena views as an example of their dreams taking priority over hers. The tale begins when Helena has an argument with her mother, where in response to the latter's exasperated 'You'll be the death of me' she counters with a surly 'I wish.' As with many such tales, these words take on a deeper significance when her mum is hospitalised shortly afterwards, burdening Helena with a terrible sense of guilt while the circus begins to fall apart and her father struggles desperately to keep it all together.
And this is what leads Helena to enter a dreamlike world. Again, much in the tradition of fantasy tales, this dreamworld is directly modelled upon the wildly-imaginative content of Helena's drawings. Furthermore, the land she enters is rules by two factions: those of the Queen of Light and the Queen of Shadow (both also played by Gina McKee). Other inhabitants of the world are strange and surreal, ranging from classical constructs (sphinxes, gryphons, etc.) to entities cobbled together from mundane items (such as Boot Man and Book Man) to the completely unexpected (monkeybirds, eye-spiders, and so on). The 'normal' populace all wear masks... and since Helena is the only one there who doesn't, this marks her out as clearly 'not of this world'.
But all is not well in this alternate universe. The Queen of Light is ill (having slipped into a magical slumber which parallels the precarious state of Helena's mother as she lies in her hospital bed) and will die without the Charm, an item which no one knows how to find... nor even what it may look like. The Queen of Shadow seems to be taking over the world and upsetting the balance out of sheer malice and evil, though Helena's investigations show there is naturally a little more to it that that. Aided by the charismatic juggler Valentine (Jason Barry), Helena sets off to locate the Charm and to restore balance to the world, hopefully also returning her to her own world.
The hardest thing to really describe about MirrorMask is its phenomenal look. It's definitely not your average Henson production and McKean really does manage to bring his very individual collage style to the production, which is also a mixed-media affair, intercutting live action with CGI, puppetry, and multi-layered animation. The visual styling of the film was of the utmost important to McKean and it's crucial for rendering this strange other world in its fullest glory. Helena's circus life is colourful, rich, and replete with interesting characters. In the dreamscape, called the Dark Lands, things are more creepy and washed out, using sepia tones and quirky film techniques and animation to make everything seem at once familiar and yet strange.
The basic storyline is nothing special – we've all seen films like this before, from Alice in Wonderland to Labyrinth (by way of The Prince and the Pauper). Where there are unexpected moments, they are certainly welcome and also usher the film in the direction of a slightly more adult audience. Gaiman's script is typical of his writing: witty, economical, and natural – after all, not too much exposition is needed here, and that's definitely a strong point. Not one that entirely makes up for the obvious plot, but it does go a long way towards it.
One essential strong point is the cast and its ability to bring the script to life when often faced with nothing more than a blue screen, having to imagine what they'll be acting to or against. Stephanie Leonidas tackles the main role well; she has a lot to carry and she succeeds with a very realistic teenage portrayal. For their part, Rob Brydon and Gina McKee turn in solid and believable performances. McKee is especially good as the Queen of Shadow; even when fighting make-up (to which she had an allergic reaction throughout the filming) she proves herself a force to be reckoned with. The stand-out for me, however, was Jason Barry as Valentine. Charismatic and physical, he manages to convey the nuances of his role and the range of the character's emotions despite his face being behind a mask for the vast majority of the shoot. The additional cast all flesh out the Dark Lands proficiently, with guest appearances from Stephen Fry, Robert Llewellyn and Lenny Henry being particularly noteworthy.
MirrorMask certainly isn't a perfect fantasy film – but it does have a lot to offer to a viewer. The world of the Dark Lands shows off the mix of CGI, animation, live action and flat drawings as well as the talents of the small cast. The partnership between McKean and Gaiman is bound to draw interest from anyone who knows their work on paper, and I don't think they'll be too disappointed by their first film collaboration.
The picture is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that looks really solid – important for a film where the images in front of us are so integral to the story as well as to the atmosphere. The colour reproduction is bang-on, with solid blacks and lovely sepia tones co-existing with natural skin tones in the real world. More importantly, perhaps, background and foreground images and detailing are clear throughout and there are no problems with sharpness, bleeding or edges. There is some grain but it didn't detract from my enjoyment – just removed this from being a perfect picture.
The sound is provided via a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track in English, Portuguese and Thai. There's also a French soundrack in Dolby Digital 2.0. Obviously, I listened to the English 5.1 soundtrack which uses it directionality well, bringing in fuller sound effects and helping the atmosphere of the film throughout. Dialogue is clearly audible in even the more action-packed scenes and balanced well with the background music.
I was pleasantly surprised by the extras package here and went through most of it directly after watching the film. There seemed to be just the right number of special features to keep my interest without inundating me with information that I wasn't all that interested in. The main extra is a feature-length commentary by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. Of course, the two have worked together for many years and this is a friendly and frank discussion of the film, the actors, and the technical details. McKean is especially industrious about pointing out which member of the animation team was responsible for which parts of the film – and it's nice to hear the team members getting these name checks. The mix of friendly banter with interesting information is one I'd like to see on every commentary track I listen to, and I'd definitely recommend listening to this one.
Aside from the commentary, there are eight featurettes of varying lengths which can either be played together or watched individually (if you follow the menu to all the right places). Being too impatient to always look for those options, I watched them all together as one longer making-of featurette, but in terms of content, I'll separate them out.
Neil Talks… An Interview with Neil Gaiman is just under six minutes long and presents Neil Gaiman talking about the film on tape. Dave McKean stars in the separate Dave Talks About Film – An Interview with Director Dave McKean. Both of these taped talks revisit some of the same ground as the commentary but there is also new material, and having these shorter segments allows viewers to get an insight from both men without listening to the commentary. It's also nice to get a chance to see what they both look like!
Beginning – The Genesis of MirrorMask is a short featurette dedicated to explaining how the storyline of MirrorMask came about. Several cast and crew members talk here, mainly to discuss how everyone was brought on board and how the film came together. It could have done with being a little longer, but with the few minutes it has, it gets the main information across well.
There's a section of Cast and Crew Interviews which feature Stephanie Leonidas, Rob Brydon, Jason Barry, Ian Sands (Sound), Michelle Davidson-Bell (Costume & Make-up), Gavin Walters (Gaffer), Jo Lea (Assistant Director), Max McMullin (CG Supervisor), Zoe Trodden (Art Direction), Simon Moorhead (Producer), Rober Lever (Costumes), and Anthony Shearn (Directory of Photography). There's a lot to take in with that number of people involved, but with only 8 minutes to play around with, the interviews are relatively short. However, it is interesting to hear from such a wide mix of people, to get their thoughts on the film and to hear a little about how they got involved in it.
Day 16 is a time lapse capture of how an entire day was spent on the set of the film, obviously the sixteenth day. It's fascinating to watch as notes pop up on screen with factoids about what was being filmed when, what was eaten for lunch, how much film was used and other interesting statistics. It definitely helped me appreciate just how much can go into an average's day of shooting for a production.
Of course the extras wouldn't be complete without some sort of look into how the special effects were brought about. And here we have two short segments - Flight of the Monkeybirds and Giants Development which looks at live action, CGI and the phases that needed to be tackled to bring these effects up to standard for the film.
Questions and Answers features Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean once again, this time at a session the pair attended at the 2004 San Diego Comic Convention. The crowd are obviously fans and Gaiman and McKean enjoy themselves with their answers to various questions about the film. Although the information isn't necessarily new, the presentation of it gives it new life and it's once again good to see the interaction between the pair.
Finally there is a gallery of poster and cover art used for the film and previews for Labyrinth, Zathura, Stargate SG-1, and Jumanji.
MirrorMask stands out visually, there's no doubt about it. It's unusual and skilled in that sense. The narrative may not be as stunningly original as I'd like, but the story is sufficient to move things along. The DVD package brings together the film with interesting and engaging extras and allows repeat viewings through which you can truly appreciate how much detail has done into the backgrounds and the animation. While this may only be a partially successful ('art house cinema') film, I'm very happy to have seen it and would definitely recommend it.
Last updated: 27/06/2018 00:41:44