Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Random Movie Report #18: Mirrormask

Sorry I haven't been posting more. It took a while to find any content worth writing about, but things should speed up in the coming days. Meanwhile, I'm also starting to put up reviews at TalkingMoviezzz, a group review site started with some buds from an AOL board. I've got up one now, but from now on stuff I post here will be posted there as well.

MIRRORMASK is a sort of LABYRINTH for the 21st century, and people not of a certain age will have no idea what that statement means. So- it's also a bit like THE NEVERENDING STORY. And just a teeny bit like THE WIZARD OF OZ, maybe. Fortunately, though its genre roots are obvious, MIRRORMASK stands well on its own as a variation on a theme. A collaboration between comic book writer and novelist Neil Gaiman and artist David McKean, made in part by Jim Henson Productions no less, it's a visually astounding fairy tale with a lot of neat ideas, some of which aren't fully developed, revolving around some unusually intense personal drama.

The protagonist of the film is Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), a 15-year-old girl with a talent for drawing. Her father Morris (Rob Brydon) runs a small circus, in which he, she, and her mother Joanne (Gina McKee) perform, but being 15 she's getting kind of bored with it (and everything to do with her parents.) During an argument before the show one night, Helena tells her mother she wishes she were dead. During the performance, Joanne suffers an aneurysm and passes out. Ten days later, she is still in the hospital and awaiting an operation, and Helena is wracked with guilt, trying to apologize to a mother who's too exhausted to hold a conversation. That night, as
mum goes under the knife, Helena dreams herself into the world of her drawings, a scratchy, mostly-black-and-white place where the City of Light is under threat from encroaching shadows which absorb and devour whatever's in their circuitous path. It seems there's an imbalance between the lands of Light and Shadow that happened when a shadow princess looking awfully like Helena came to the Palace of Light, and later departed with some sort of charm, this making the Queen of Light- who looks very much like Joanne- very sick. So it's up to Helena to find the charm, assisted by a cynical juggler named Valentine (Jason Barry) and a Very Useful Book. They travel through a world full of cats with human faces, books that fly back to the library if you convince them that you don't like them, giants who float in the air, and weird gorilla-birds with detachable beaks.

And just when you think you've worked out what's happening, the film takes a bit of a left turn. We learn about the not-Helena Shadow princess and what precisely she's done that's set the world out of balance, and we meet the Shadow Queen (who ALSO looks a lot like Helena's mum) whose motives are not as sinister as one expects. It's a nice conceptual bait-and-switch, with a black-and-white fairy tale turning out not to be so black-and-white after all, and it touches on the basic problem of Helena growing up, and the adolescent turmoil that entails. In Anti-Helena, Helena sees a sort of worst-case scenario of what could happen to her, the dark impulse which with she seemed to "curse" her mother. At heart, all these kinds of stories are ones of personal growth- it's very Joseph Campbell-esque- but it's the specific path that the protagonists of each take that distinguish them, and this particular path rings particularly true. (Then again, I've never been a 15-year-old girl so maybe I shouldn't talk.)

The film has the visual richness you would expect from a Henson fantasy, and anyone who's encountered McKean's Steadman-esque work even in passing will recognize the style (in addition to directing, McKean served as designer.) The sepia-tone look takes some getting used to, but it has a rich and vaguely sensuous quality. As I mentioned above, a lot of neat and interesting ideas are manifested in Helena's imagination, but we don't quite get to see them develop. There's a vaguely abbreviated feeling to the proceedings, although it's a healthy hundred-and-two minutes long. It would have been very nice to see this dream world explored in a bit more detail, or for some elements to play a bigger role in the plot. At one point, Helena and Valentine appear to be wandering a bit aimlessly before catching sight of where they need to go; I'm not sure if there's a scene missing or if I just wasn't paying attention. Given the expense that must have been involved in filming the bulk of this picture, I'm not surprised that they cut what they could, but you still wonder at what might have been.

Still, this film does linger on the memory. It's vivid, poignant, and sophisticated; Neil Gaiman contributes a lot of witty touches, and gives a strange maturity to the proceedings. It's definitely a film for children and young adults, but has the wisdom of hindsight in it. It has, and will, confuse some, disappoint others, and utterly enchant a select niche. Me, I'm getting to be fond of it.

Grade: B+

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