A Dave McKean-directed/Neil Gaiman-scripted/Jim Henson Company-produced movie about a teenage circus performer who, on the night her mother undergoes a life-or-death operation, goes on a quest in a fantasy world that may or may not be a dream.
About all I remembered of this film’s reviews when it first came out was that the design was great, but the storytelling was too episodic.
That’s a pretty accurate summary. The most impressive thing about the film is what a great job the visuals do of adapting Dave McKean’s “antique collage” style to live-action props. The whole thing looks like a Sandman cover in motion!
The “Uncanny Valley” is a massively overused term these days, shouted out by every Ebert blog/AICN/IMDB commenter as if it’s something obscure that they’re the only one to have heard of. But there are times when intentional application of it works well to produce something creepy, and the Sphinxes’ faces in this film are a good example.
The film came out around the same time as Sin City and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and like those movies, a large proportion of MirrorMask was shot against bluescreen, with entirely CGI backgrounds. The budget was a hell of a lot smaller than those films, though, with CGI effects nowhere near as cutting-edge, and it shows. I’m not saying I would have wanted Gollum or Avatar-level photorealism, indistinguishable from real life (the film was not taking that approach), but even accounting for the film’s dreamlike aesthetic, there were bits of animation and texturing that didn’t quite match perfectly, and could’ve done with more time. It’s also possible that the effects scenes’ monochrome gold/sepia colours could be viewed as a sickly colour palette – what John K likes to call “poo and pee colours”!
But although faults like that could put people off, they didn’t bother me. I have to applaud the approach of prioritising the translation of Dave McKean’s style to the screen over all else, and they succeeded. In a time when too many big-budget blockbusters have all their fantasy monster design smoothed out into an unmemorable blur (what did the frost giants look like in Thor, again?), it’s a wonderful novelty to see a film that bears such a distinct fingerprint of just one artist: according to the film’s excellent Making Of, McKean did most of the texture photography and all of the compositing himself! I have no idea how the executives keeping an eye on the film ever let it get made, but I’m glad it was.
It’s also worth noting that few enough people worked on the film that rather than being buried away as “Additional Assistant Support Digital Matte Painter”, the effects animators were able to have entire scenes to themselves, and the end credits could describe exactly what contributions were made by each artist. That’s a nice thing to see. (Also, a few of the film’s designs were contributed by Ian Miller – who scared the shit out of me years ago when I stumbled across The City, his comic-strip collaboration with James Herbert and his Rats, in our school library…)
So the designs were great to look at. As for the plot…
The word “quintessential” gets used a couple of times in this film. And I have to say it’s the most quintessentially Neil Gaiman-y thing that Neil Gaiman’s ever been involved with. All his trademarks are here: dreams (Sandman), just-out-of-reach fantasy worlds (Neverwhere, Coraline, Stardust, American Gods… er, pretty much everything), dark doppelgangers (Coraline), cities (Neverwhere, several Sandman stories), characters speaking in run-on-sentence lists (Delirium from Sandman). Pretty much the only one of his recurring themes that doesn’t get a look in is the Story About Stories (although there is a scene in a library which briefly features a story within the film’s story). Plus, on the DVD commentary, Gaiman points out that the impossible riddle featured in the film was accidentally re-used almost word-for-word from a Batman/Riddler story he’d written in the 1980s!
So basically: don’t watch it if you don’t like Scary Trousers Gaiman. Unfortunately, even if you do like his other work you might not like this. He did the idea of girls escaping to dreams/fantasy worlds much better in both Coraline and the Sandman arc “A Game of You”. Having said that, the previous work it mostly reminded me of was Neverwhere, due to its city setting. (Neverwhere the novel, that is; I’ve never seen the TV series.)
In fantasy, there’s a fine line between out-there dream-logic concepts that are magical and enchanting and capture the imagination, and those that end up being insufferably cute. Terry Gilliam and Charlie Kaufman’s films walk that line brilliantly, and Gaiman’s Sandman does too, but some elements of this film veer dangerously close to the twee: the mime artist in the circus scenes at the start of the film, and the idea of “reject the book and you it’ll fly back home to the library, and you can ride it all the way there” which forms our first introduction to the fantasy world. Sometimes the film feels like it’s trying too hard to be self-consciously weird.
So, since MirrorMask‘s plot isn’t particularly gripping in its own right, the film is far from flawless. But that doesn’t mean it’s worthless; it can be quite interesting if approached with the right mentality. I find I get most out of the film when I consider its place in Neil Gaiman’s body of work as a whole, and its relationship to other tales by him that used similar elements to better effect. For that reason, I’d say that if you intend to view MirrorMask, it’s beneficial to have already encountered some of the other pieces of Gaiman’s writing that I’ve mentioned over the last few paragraphs.
Incidentally, MirrorMask is a good one for playing Spot The British (Voice) Actor: Stephen Fry! Robert Llewellyn! Andy Hamilton! Lenny Henry!
Good closing joke, too.
Oh, and I quite liked the music, even if no-one else did.
It’s a film that’s fascinating to look at throughout, and works fantastically as an illustration of McKean’s artistry. But as a story it isn’t anywhere near as good as some of Gaiman’s other on-screen projects like Coraline or Stardust or last year’s Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife”. It’s still worth watching, though, if only to learn something about why it didn’t work as well as those stories.
(MirrorMask does, however, compare favourably to at least one Gaiman co-written screenplay: it’s miles better than Robert Zemeckis’ performance-captured adaptation of Beowulf!)
3.5 out of 5.