CAPSULE: MIRRORMASK (2005)

DIRECTED BY: Dave McKean

FEATURING: Stephanie Leonidas, Jason Barry, Gina McKee, Rob Brydon

PLOT: A bratty teenager who works as a juggler in her parents’ circus is transported to a devious world of her own imagination after her mother falls ill.  With the help of a cowardly juggler, she navigates a crumbling surrealistic city where everyone wears masks in search of a charm that will help bring her back to her own life.
Still from MirrorMask (2005)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While Dave McKean’s impressively out-there creature and set design certainly gives MirrorMask some memorable visuals, the story and characters are lifted right out of typical fantasy stock, resulting in a beautiful but ultimately conventional movie.  366weirdmovies adds: I agree that MirrorMask shouldn’t go on the List; but, I will admit that when the androids popped out of their pods and gave the heroine a “bad girl” makeover while singing a weirdly harmonized version of the Carpenters’ “Close to You,” I was strongly tempted to nominate it as a Candidate.

COMMENTS: Popular fantasy author Neil Gaiman teamed up Dave McKean, the cover artist for his “Sandman” comics, delivering a script that revisits themes from his young adult book Coraline (which itself draws on archetypes found in The Wizard of Oz and “Alice in Wonderland“) for a movie that recalls the wild, inventive imagery of “Sandman” and his Neverwhere BBC miniseries.  MirrorMask is an allegorical adventure about a girl who grows up quickly, redeeming her past selfish actions through new-found respect for her parents and her own talents.  It’s a family film, and is at times bogged down by patronizing, simplistic dialogue and obvious symbolism, including a world literally divided by “Light” and “Shadow.”  There’s even a girl whose clear displays of “evilness” are fishnet stockings, cigarettes, and (gasp!) kissing a boy.

For all its narrative flaws, the film still charms with the help of a talented cast.  Stephanie Leonidas is excellent as Helena, effectively capturing the many moods of a teenage girl while still creating a sympathetic character.  Jason Barry works well with his chatty, comic-relief sidekick character, despite the inherent cliches in his personality.  But it’s Gina McKee in her triple role as Helena’s mother, the “Queen of Light”, and the “Queen of Darkness” who really leaves an impression.  She navigates between frustrated working mother, soft-spoken adviser, and tyrannical control-freak with ease.

MirrorMask is worth a look if solely for the visuals, which are truly captivating and imaginative.  The sets are infused with yellow and brown tones, soft light, and glowing edges.  Several sequences combine 2-D animation and intricate ink-and-paper drawings.  The live-action actors interact with a wealth of strange digitally-rendered creatures, some of which are freakishly collaged together with video feeds, human appendages, and geometric forms.  Scenes of slow-moving giants contorting in the sky, floating fish swimming through the streets, the main character’s stop-motion make-over to the sounds of “Close to You”—these fantastic images have a lasting impact.  The predictable and familiar story, discordant jazz soundtrack, and slightly dated special effects cannot mask how magnificent an imagination lies behind the film.

366weirdmovies adds:  I found MirrorMask to be a movie whose imaginative virtues slightly outweigh it’s narrative flaws, making it a pretty good choice for anyone looking for a light and dreamy eye-candy fantasy.  Produced by the Jim Henson Company (but virtually puppet free),  the movie features visuals that are always inventive and occasionally astounding.  The orbiting giants, the cubist librarian, the weird little rainbow-winged cats with disturbing convex human faces and the Dark Queen’s automaton handmaids are all high points.  If there’s a downside it’s that this world, while attractive, is too digital; it needed more analog warmth.  It looks like something that was cooked up in a studio with banks of computer monitors rather than in a teenage girl’s unconscious.  The primary emotional trauma young Helena is trying to work through in her dream really isn’t gripping enough to involve us in her psychological journey (she’s upset over having said a few thoughtlessly harsh words to her mom just before she fell ill).   About midway through, almost as if they figured out the primary subtext wasn’t carrying its weight, the movie suddenly springs the “good mom/bad mom” conceit that worked so well in Coraline on us.  Still, with all its faults, I can see how MirrorMask would make a hell of an impression on a girl who saw it at the right age.  Although the movie is awfully pretty, I couldn’t help comparing it unfavorably to Jim Henson’s previous girl-coming-of-age fantasy Labyrinth (1986), which had just as much picaresque adventure but more psychological depth, darkness, and coherence.  Not to mention, David Bowie’s soundtrack blows away the Kenny G-ish smooth jazz theme here, which doesn’t make me think “trapped in a timeless dream world” so much as “trapped in a 1993 Starbucks.”

Alex responds: I’m glad you agree about the soundtrack!  It really takes away from some of the great visual scenes—it’s just distracting.  And while I’ve read many comparisons to Labyrinth, I actually think MirrorMask is a bit better.  I loved Labyrinth as a kid but re-watched it recently and found it lacking.  It’s totally worth it for David Bowie, though, of course!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Landscapes recede vaguely into dissolving grotesqueries as Helena wanders endlessly past one damn thing after another, and since everything that happens in this world is absolutely arbitrary, there’s no way to judge whether any action is helpful or not. It’s a world where no matter what Helena does, an unanticipated development will undo her effort and require her to do something else. Watching ‘MirrorMask’ I suspected the filmmakers began with a lot of ideas about how the movie should look, but without a clue about pacing, plotting or destination.” –Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

2 thoughts on “CAPSULE: MIRRORMASK (2005)”

  1. It’s funny – I really love the discordant jazz soundtrack. Everything in this movie felt thrown together from random – but unified with those brown/yellow parchment tones and McKean style artwork. In the same way random places and objects were unified in the film, the random, discordant jazz fit too, because it didn’t quite fit. But when it comes down to it…Yeah, I can understand why most would prefer something a little more “trapped in a timeless dream world.”

    As a 20 year old male, and still ranking this among my favorite movies, does that make me weird?

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