Mirror Mask

Mirror Mask (2005)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Gina McKee, Stephanie Leonidas, Jason Barry, Rob Brydon
Extras: Commentary Track, Interviews, Featurettes, Poster and Cover Art Gallery

Helena Campbell performs in a juggling act in her parent's traveling circus. Like many youngsters, she suffers from the requisite teen angst which alienates her from the outside world and causes friction between her and her Mother. One night during a performance, Helena gets into an argument with her Mother and wishes that she was dead and, ironically enough, her Mother suddenly falls ill, sending Helena's already unstable existence into disarray. Not only is the fate of the circus in jeopardy, but so is her Mother's life. Helena takes comfort in her bedroom, surrounded by a myriad of sketches that populate her walls. These drawings depict strange, fantastic creatures and bizarre landscapes and, as Helena falls asleep, she finds herself transported to this fantasy world. In her dreamland, there is a vast Kingdom that is in a struggle between light and dark, the world slowly becoming consumed by black shadows. In order to restore balance and awaken the comatose White Queen, Helena must search for the fabled MirrorMask. On her journey, she encounters various characters that spring from her artistic mind; some offer assistance while others provide obstacles for her to overcome. Can Helena awaken the White Queen and restore balance to the land? Or will the Dark Queen succeed, forcing Helena to become her Dark Princess?

Critically lauded novelist and comic book writer Neil Gaiman teams up with frequent collaborator Dave McKean to create the visually sumptuous "MirrorMask." Director McKean's painterly eye infuses each scene with beautiful, haunting, collage-like images. To bring his vision to life, the Jim Henson Company lends a hand, designing a vast array of creatures that inhabit the dreamscape. Following in the tradition of "Labyrinth" and "The Dark Crystal," "MirrorMask" constructs a fantasy environment that enthralls the viewer with unique images.

For his first full-length film, McKean shows a deft hand at constructing awe-inspiring scenes through lighting and camerawork. The circus sequences that bookend the film burst with bright, striking reds, adding a hyper-realistic tone that matches the onscreen antics, while Helena's depressed state is represented by wide-angle, distorted lens shots and scenery that is tinted with cool, blue hues. Helena's emotional fragility is also well represented by her decrepit surroundings. Paint-peeling tenement buildings rise up around her, devoid of color, while the sky above is always a shade of gray.

Contrasting this is the dreamworld, which is colored in sepia-tones, with frequently blurry edges surrounding the images. McKean perfectly constructs the haziness of dreams, where anything can happen at any time. Part of the fun of the film lays in this unpredictability. Such lushness in the visuals keeps the viewer glued to each and every moment, unsure of what will grace the screen next. The rich imagery is definitely the main attraction of the film, since there are points where the narrative slows to a crawl. We've seen this kind of fantasy tale many times before (in similar-themed movies like "The Wizard of Oz" and the aforementioned "Labyrinth"), so McKean has to rely on the visuals to carry the film through these rough spots. Luckily, just when moments of tedium set in, another astounding scene will pop up, erasing the bad taste. Scenes like the Monkeybird chase sequence or Helena succumbing to a goth-like makeover (set to The Carpenter's "Close To You" song) redeem these narrative missteps.

Much like "The Wizard of Oz," characters in Helena's real life manifest themselves in her dreamworld. The most prominent of these is her Mother, who dually portrays the slumbering White Queen and the evil Dark Queen who lords over the Land of Shadows. Complications arise when Helena discovers that the Princess of the Land of Shadows has used the MirrorMask to switch places with her. Every now and again, Helena catches glimpses of her doppelganger wreaking havoc in the real world, representing a view of Helena's future and the inner turmoil that's bubbling inside of her. Symbolic threads like this run throughout the film and the most overly symbolic theme deals with the black shadows that are engulfing the Land. Helena's quest to bring back the MirrorMask (in order to stop the shadows from advancing), signifies the cancer that is creeping through her Mother's ravaged body. These parallel narratives successfully add depth to the tale.

Unlike other fantasy films that have preceded it, "MirrorMask" is decidedly dark, almost devoid of bright, vivid colors. By draining the color palette to its bare, monochromatic essentials, the look and tone of the film becomes dreary. Little joy is to be had, which filters over to the character of Helena. I would have liked to have seen more emotion and wonder expressed by her, which ultimately hampers the emotional impact of the film. Helena essentially becomes an active observer, one who acts with and interplays with her surroundings, but who nonetheless expresses no real emotional immediacy (even though the narrative trajectory requires her to proceed with her quest). This creates a sense of apathy in the viewer, yet the striking visuals always seem to reel us back in. So, while the scenes are rich with bizarre vistas and creatures, we are never truly engaged on an emotional level.

Also worth noting is the languid pace of the film, which may test the patience of viewers who are used to more action-oriented fare. While being PG-rated, this deliberate pacing may also give the children its aimed at some restless fits, especially when coupled with the somber, melancholy tone of the film (there are brief, sporadic moments of comic relief though, mostly evoked by Helena's sidekick, Valentine). For those who stick with it though, "MirrorMask" offers up a wealth of rewards. From a purely visual standpoint, it's definitely unlike any film I've ever seen. Normally, such a proliferation of CGI-based characters and environments takes me out of the movie, but "MirrorMask" employs this technology effectively, perfectly realizing the bizarre world of dreams.

Sony Home Entertainment presents "MirrorMask" in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and the transfer is exceptional. With the film mired in darkness for most of the running time, the black levels prove to be suitably rich, creating great depth to the images. Also, the picture is devoid of any dust or dirt particles, with grain completely absent. This is particularly impressive given the film's low-budget origins. Rich, vivid colors jump out of the screen during the beginning and end sequences, with color saturation levels pitch-note perfect. Color bleeding is non-existent and details are sharp, with skin tones appearing natural (except when in the dreamworld, where the skin tones have an ephemeral quality to them).

The Dolby 5.1 surround is also well done, with all levels perfectly balanced. The rear channels provide great depth to the bizarre visuals; with haunting echoes of distant, ticking clocks and the clattering of spindly legs from half-eyeball, half-spider creatures immersing us into the world. Vocals fare well, appearing natural and free of hiss or distortion. The only quibble I have with the soundtrack deals with the score. I'm not sure what type of music it is, but is sounds like an amalgamation of jazz, folk, polka, electronica and circus sounds all rolled into one. While this is effective in the circus scenes, it begins to wear out its welcome during the rest of the film, increasingly seeming out of place. A subtler score would have provided the accompanying visuals with even more weight.

Included on the "MirrorMask" DVD is a commentary track featuring writer Neil Gaiman and director Dave McKean. Both come off as affable, intelligent men and their banter clearly expresses how close they are. The track is a mixture of anecdotes and technical talk about the making of the film. Lulls in the conversation are few and far between and luckily, both offer up interesting details, pointing out the many metaphors and attempts at foreshadowing, while also offering small tidbits of information that completely passed me by on the first viewing (like a Muzak version of the song "Close To You" playing in a background scene).

"The Making of MirrorMask," is a collection of short featurettes. "Neil Talks" is an interview with the writer, who gives a brief history of his collaborative relationship with Dave McKean. In "Dave Talks about Film," the director touches on his artistic beginnings and the types of films that have inspired and influenced him. He briefly mentions the ideas behind the look of "MirrorMask" and what his plans for the future are. "Beginnings" is a series of talking-head interviews with behind-the-scenes people who talk about the origins of the film. Another featurettes, entitled "Cast and Crew," has interviews on and off location with the primary cast and crew. Actors comment on their characters and McKean's directing style, while the crew talks about the many challenges of the shoot. The most interesting extra is the "Day 16" featurette, which details one whole day of shooting through time-lapse photography. Using split-screen, we see the shots being set up on one side and the completed scenes on the other. Interspersed are written facts on the film (like how many feet of film was used) that flash up on the screen every few seconds. "Flight of the Monkeybirds" highlights the blue-screen work and the creation of the computer graphics to bring this sequence to life. "Giants Development" focuses on the conception of the Giants, from rough sketches to the clay modeling, all the way to the storyboard breakdowns. The last and longest featurette (coming in at a little over 25 minutes), is the "Questions and Answers" extra. This is a compilation of questions and answers between Gaiman and McKean from 2003 and 2004, spanning stops at the San Diego Comic Con and the Sundance Film Festival. Most of the answers they give are comical and rarely seriously addressed, which proves unfortunate because I wanted to know many of the "correct" answers.

The DVD also features a "Poster and Cover Art" extra. These include rough, early additions of the posters, the covers of various books that relate to the making of the film and the cover of the CD soundtrack. Rounding it out are the finished Sundance and theatrical posters as well as a selection of bonus trailers.

"MirrorMask" is an exceptionally well made film that offers up incredible visuals. While the story is lacking with immediacy and emotional relevance, the sheer imagination of the creatures and unpredictable vignettes makes up for these minor flaws. If you have patience, you will be rewarded with stunning set pieces that are rich with imagination. Essentially a pastiche of other fantasy films, it nonetheless carves its own unique vision, making it a film I would recommend to anyone in an adventurous mood. Repeat value is also heightened, since the film is jam-packed with miniscule details that many will miss the first time around.