Monday, March 19, 2012

Movie – MirrorMask (2005)

Do some children still dream about running away from home to join the circus?  Well, what if your parents owned a circus they performed in and your whole life had been nothing but the circus?  You’d probably dream about running away to have a normal life.  This is the situation faced by Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) in MirrorMask.  This film is on the darker side of fairytales – the ones where a child is taken away by bad forces and is in danger.  The film features some truly unique imagery as it blends the real world with the un-real world.  It is probably not for everyone, but I found myself liking it quite a bit – once I got used to its visual style.

MirrorMask features a combination of live action and animation.  It is not like Avatar where you go from all live action characters to all animated characters, though.  It is more in the vein of Who Framed Roger Rabbit where you’ve got a live action character interacting with animated characters in an animated world.  And what animation it is.  I thought I had seen just about everything when it came to animation, but this film showed me I was wrong.  It features a number of different styles and even different forms.  There is 2D alongside 3D.  There is stop motion like The Nightmare Before Christmas.  There is the cutout style of animation made popular by South Park.  There may even be rotoscoping and motion capture, although I am not positive about that.

These aren’t cutesy animals and characters, either.  It’s much more a nightmare kind of world.  If you are old enough to remember the short animated promos Mtv used to run between videos then that would be a good comparison to the animation and style found in this film.  I mentioned that it took me a little bit to adjust to the style.  I loaned this to a friend and his only description of the film was, “It was weird.”

Where does this weirdness come from?  The Jim Henson Company (Labyrinth), director, co-writer, and concept artist Dave McKean, and co-writer Neil Gaiman (Sandman, Coraline, Stardust) all made this happen.  The Jim Henson Company wanted to produce a direct to DVD movie that they could sell because they had seen great success with sales of Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal.  They approached Gaiman about writing the screenplay and McKean about directing.  Eventually, Gaiman and McKean collaborated closely on the story and the design.  Although intended for DVD-only, the film did get a limited theatrical release in the U.S., including being shown at Sundance.

The lead character of Helena is the soul of the movie.  She is an artist, with all the walls of her room covered in art she has created.  Pay attention to this art because it will be the basis for the world she finds herself in.  When the film started I made the assumption that Helena was about 10 years old just from Leonidas’ face.  A little later I revised this upward to around 13.  Even later I revised it upward again to around 16, which was correct for the character.  After the film was over I went out to IMDB and looked up the actress.  I was surprised to find that she was almost 22 when the film was released, so she would have been about 20 when she acted in it.  I haven’t seen Leonidas in anything else, but according to her IMDB page she re-teamed with Dave McKean for a 2011 film titled Luna.

When MirrorMask opens Helena and her mother (Gina McKee) are having an argument.  The mother is trying to get Helena out of her room because the show is about to start, but Helena is tired of the whole thing.  She angrily tells her mother she wishes the mother were dead.  She does get up and performs a juggling act with her father (Rob Brydon), who also runs the circus.  His performances are more Cirque du Soleil than traditional circus.  People wear strange masks when they are out performing.

While they are juggling, Helena’s mother collapses backstage.  She is rushed to the hospital and it is determined she will need an operation or she is going to die.  Helena, of course, blames herself for this because of what she said to her mother just before.  That night Helena has a strange dream.  When she awakens she goes down to the street and things are a little off.  She soon finds that she is in another world; one that seems to be based on her art.  Has she actually woken up or is she still dreaming?

She encounters both animated and live action characters.  Every live action character wears a mask, not unlike the ones worn by the performers in the circus.  One of the characters she encounters is also played by Rob Brydon.  In a very charming, partially animated sequence, he explains to Helena that the world has a Queen of Light and a Queen of Shadows (both also played by Gina McKee).  The daughter of the Queen of Shadows came to visit the Queen of Light.  This Princess stole the Queen of Light’s mirror mask, after which the Queen fell deathly ill.  The Queen of Shadows has begun taking over everything.  Unless the mask is returned to the Queen of Light, she will die and all will be lost.

Making things more interesting is that Helena is an exact twin of the Princess.  Characters she meets assume that is who she is, even the Queen of Shadows herself.  She ends up making over Helena into a closer version of her daughter in perhaps the creepiest moment in the film.  If you had ever told me that the sugary sweet 1970’s Carpenters’ song Close to You would be used in a scene and it would raise the hairs on my arms, I would have thought you were joking.

Helena finds out that the Princess has switched places with her.  That was what she stole the mirror mask for.  Through windows she drew in her artwork Helena can see back out into the real world and observe what her double is doing, which includes some not very nice things.  In order to save this world from the Queen of Shadows, to revive the Queen of Light, and to ever be able to get home again, Helena is going to have to find the mirror mask. 

All of a sudden, the Princess notices Helena looking out at her from the artwork.  The Princess realizes that in order to stay where she is she is going to have to destroy all of it, so that even if Helena gets the mirror mask it will not matter.  As she does so, parts of the world Helena is in are also destroyed.  If the Princess succeeds in destroying all of the art not only will Helena never get back, she will be killed as the world around her is destroyed.

The film combines elements of The Wizard of Oz and Pan’s Labyrinth.  With real world people showing up as other characters in the other world, does this mean it is all a dream like it might have been for Dorothy?  The mother falling ill and the daughter going into another realm to try to get the means to rescue her might remind people of Pan’s Labyrinth.  The thing is, MirrorMask came out about a year and a half before Pan’s Labyrinth did.  The child being “wooed” by a creepy, substitute mother in another realm also makes up a big part of Neil Gaiman’s story Coraline, which I will be reviewing soon.

If you prefer your movies to be normal then this is definitely not the film for you.  Even if you do like things that are different, it may take a little while for you to get used to the style of the film.  If you do, though, I think you may like it quite a bit.  If it sounds interesting to you then I highly recommend this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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  1. This one is on my list for next week, as it's one of the films in an upcoming episode of The Demented Podcast. Sounds like I'll probably like it a lot.

  2. @SJHoneywell - I hope so. Please let me know what you thought once you have a chance to see it.