More of my old reviews from Film Focus. This one got me mentioned on Neil Gaiman's blog - with a corresponding explosion of hits to this one. I'll put up my interview with director Dave McKean tomorrow.
Reviewed 25 February 2006
Helena craves a normal, everyday life like all the other kids have. But her parents run a circus and when she’s not performing with them her only escape is her drawing. When her mum becomes seriously ill, Helena finds herself venturing even further into her strange, troubled pictures…
A beautifully eerie and twisted vision to enthral children and terrify their parents.
While Mirrormask looks extraordinary, the story and plot both seem familiar. Following in the tradition of the Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, a not-quite-an-adult explores a strange and illogical fantasy world, encountering very odd people on the way.
Even those who aren’t actually evil are unwittingly dangerous, like adult-sized children capable of great harm. As in Labyrinth, it’s our heroine’s burgeoning maturity that sees her through – choosing her friends carefully and not snogging the wrong boys.
There are also recognisable elements from writer Neil Gaiman’s other work: the twisted mirror-world from his novella Coraline; the protagonist’s fear of embarrassment by their parents from his new novel Anansi Boys, as well as spying spiders and flocks of evil birds. The vast and strange library with its impossible books is right out of his best-selling comic-book, Sandman.
But Mirrormask is implicitly about the familiar reflected in a new and strange way. Even the real Brighton seems unreal through Helena’s eyes – the view of the beach from her home bleakly gothic, and Auntie Nan no less peculiar than the old woman with the sphinxes and cake.
Every strange and sumptuous frame is a work of art – those who’ve loved Dave McKean’s covers for Sandman and Varjak Paw cannot miss this. Mirrormask definitely rewards a second viewing just to pick up on missed details. This is a real achievement for a film made so – relatively – cheaply.
The CGI is awesome, full of brilliant creatures and textures till the end. There are occasions when the real cast don’t quite seem to be there – floating rather than touching the floor, or not seeing the wild things right in front of them. This is a minor quibble, though, and in some ways adds to the strangely dreamy effect.
All kinds of warped influences make up Helena’s world. We hear a twisted version of Bacharach and David’s “Close to you”, and see Helena and her new friend Valentine chase through a street like a Jean Miro painting. In another nice twist on the familiar, bulky Henry Moore-like sculptures float as weightless as clouds.
What becomes increasingly clear though, is that it’s Helena’s own world that’s being warped: the Prime Minister looks like her father, and is just as ineffectual in stopping the decay, while Helena’s torn feelings for her very sick mother produce two doppelganger queens, one perfect and one utterly terrifying.
This strange and inventive world is under threat from the Queen of Shadows, who vomits all kinds of monsters to help scour the land for her errant daughter. As well as the freaky spiders and monkeybirds already mentioned, there are thick, nightmarish roots to entangle even the strongest-seeming characters. However fast Helena runs, destruction and death remain close behind.
The film is full of darkness, with the intangible dread of a nightmare. Though there are some fun gags about such things as herrings, there’s little that’s nice in this world. Reality is seen to be just as random and brutal, too, with sudden sickness and fights about money.
The realism of the performances grounds the story in bleakness, and the put-upon Muppet-esque hedgehog, Small Hairy, adds to the general sense of misery rather than distracts from it. As a result, the film lacks the hippy charm of the Dark Crystal or Labyrinth, and so might not be as accessible to audiences. It’d certainly freak out younger kids.
I suspect that it’s a film more about adults than children anyway. Helena’s horror at seeing a twisted version of herself wearing make-up, snogging boys and throwing away her old, childish drawings, seems more the concern of her parents, struggling to accommodate a child wanting to break away from them. The evil, anti-Helena only wants to get away from an overly controlling mother.
At the beginning of the film, Helena longs to escape the circus and is told that she can’t spoil her father’s dream. Helena’s drawings and her adventures inside them don’t speak of a want of normalcy, but of a need for a dream of her own.
In seeing her own world differently through the distortions of the mirror world, Helena’s able to find her own space. And, of course, the right sort of boy…