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MirrorMask (2005)

Review by Michelle Lopes

In 2005 a brilliant illustrator co-wrote, designed, and directed a live action film of unspeakable beauty and an inscrutable nature. Mirrormask, directed by Dave McKean and co-written by his colleague Neil Gaiman, is a treasure worth unburying and taking a good close look at. The wealth of this film, uncommon in a world of straight-forward plots and images, does not lie in a story that is easily digested, but in its plethora of metaphoric storytelling and the emotional impact raw symbols can carry - if well-crafted. Every symbol in Mirrormask is deliciously honed - a treat.

The general plot the film uses is very simple, but deceptively so: a girl (Helena) just blooming into adolescence quarrels with her mother and speaks the fatal wish - that she wants to be the death of her mother, literally. Her mother is soon after rushed to a hospital, where it is discovered that she has a brain tumor. The night before the operation, Helena falls asleep and enters a world that she has created in drawings previously. While in her dream-state, she embarks on a symbolic quest to cure her mother and come to terms with her encroaching age. During the quest Helena encounters flying books, toothsome sphinxes, orbiting giants, betrayal, and creatures and plants of considerable imagination and beauty. Whether she will succeed in her quest, or whether the dream world will fully impact and change the course of the real world, is the driving question.

However, the story the film engages in is not nearly as simple as the naked structure of the plot. The story is rich with mystery, obfuscation, and symbolism; much of which is purely a delight to mull over. Interestingly enough, the differences between story and plot are reflected in the very design of the film’s art direction - where simple lines and flatness is often projected onto three-dimensional surfaces that are either animated, or part of costume and set design (i.e. masks, walls, and other props).

What is important about this film is not to lose yourself in the film’s obfuscations, but to enjoy being lost. Space in Mirrormask’s dream world is often indistinct, floating, both spatially flat and deep. So too are multiple, smaller stories often given in the course of the tale - a creation myth for the dream world, for example, is told to Helena by a librarian - acting as an indistinct component that may never become completely clear, but adds to the film’s atmosphere. Small stories overlap and pull the mind into a heavy state of symbol upon symbol that can often be explained by themes. For example, duality, which is liberally found in Mirrormask, is evidenced very simply by the dream world’s geography - it has two halves, light and dark.

Accordingly, it also has two Queens - light and dark. Both of the Queens are played by the girl’s mother, and indeed do represent two aspects of the mother character. The light Queen is the girl’s incapacitated mother who lies still in the hospital, who she hopes to save by curing her with the mythic object she must quest for. The dark Queen is all of the negative aspects of the girl’s mother - she is the possessive caricature that Helena created when she quarreled with her mother before she fell ill. When the light Queen falls ill and the dark Queen scours the dream world with darkness in pursuit of a lost daughter, the dream world is threatened with destruction.

The dark Queen’s lost daughter, a dark Princess as it were, is the fulcrum for the chaos in the dream world. At her disappearance, the dark Queen becomes distraught. The dark Princess, or Anti-Helena as the credits dub her, is really Helena’s evil doppelganger. With Helena trapped in the dream world, Anti-Helena wrecks havoc in the real world. What is most delicious is that Mirrormask is ultimately a coming-of-age story, and the two Helenas neatly represent the warring factions adolescence evokes. The “good” Helena can only watch helplessly through windows at Anti-Helena’s bad behavior, perfectly illustrating the adolescent feelings of futility and disembodiement as hormones and emotions take over the body, forcing the ego to temporarily surrender to chaos. As Helena watches Anti-Helena yell at her father, Helena cries out in frustration: “Dad that’s not me! I’m right here!” And Helena is indeed “here,” inside the thoughts and therefore the body of Anti-Helena, but unable to stop herself from inflicting her growing pains on her parent.

The quest itself, appropriate as it takes place in a dream world, is rife with dream-logic. One image leads to another image, and clues are merely reflections of past images, unpredictable and yet fluid. The mythic object that Helena quests for is a Mirrormask, something that reflects and yet hides, and will grant her every wish. That is because the importance of the quest lies not in some easily discerned riddle, but in the conscious realization of her quickly changing body and desires. Early on in the story she scorns kissing and sexually defining forms of dress, but as Anti-Helena embodies these actions and modes of sexuality, Helena must acknowledge their encroaching presence. This is a story about self-discovery, too, and encountering the fear that as you grow up, you endanger the worlds of thought you created as a child. It is up to Helena, then, to literally and figuratively save her own world, to preserve her own self despite the onslaught of growth and all the traits a growing girl will come to possess, willingly or unwillingly.

In the tradition of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Tetsuo: Iron Man, Mirrormask is a stylistically conscious combination of animation and live action. Often the world the characters inhabit is completely created within a computer, and to handsome effect, with few exceptions. Particularly disappointing were the flying schools of fish, which were too perfectly shaped - resembling the Jesus fish found on the bumpers of Buicks with bad transmissions - and would have been benefitted by mimicking the illustrations of fish that Dave McKean obviously drew and photographed on Helena’s wall. In fact, the weakest points of the film lay in a lot of the 3D animation, but overall it’s not so distracting as to provoke any real dismay. One 3-dimensional character, a sort of quilled platypus lackey for the dark Queen, is extremely well animated and comes across as not only believable, but very well-acted. A lot of the texturing was quite good, and obviously slaved over in Photoshop, and looks great. The lighting, equally embellished in the world of the machine, is delectable.

The most damning, and hideous aspect of Mirrormask, is the godawful music. For the majority of the film you are trapped in some musack-y nightmare that would force jazz fans to excuse themselves for a brief trip to the restroom before the first fifteen minutes were over. Any good filmgoer, however, can easily tune bad music out when forced to - as you will be if you watch Mirrormask. If you want to sacrifice the beautiful foley and other sound design elements, you could always watch it subtitled, but the rest of the sound composition really is quite good, so that would be a shame. No, better to face the demon in the eye and give it a good slapping. You won’t be scarred for life, just for the length of the film.

Pacing in Mirrormask is slow, but delicious. It is slow in the sense that thinking is slow and growth is slow - the film deliberately gives you time to relish the spirals each new symbol can send you down. Impatient viewers who do not enjoy getting spatially and intellectually lost will encounter problems with the pacing because they are not throwing themselves into the nature of the film. Mirrormask is, easily, more art than diversion.

Lose yourself within a rare genre - that of the stylistically emphatic live action/animated film - a personal favourite, and a fine way to spend an evening or two. The DVD offers a commentary by Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman, and some really interesting interviews with the duo as well as the Head Henson at Jim Henson studios. You will only regret you didn’t see it in the movie theater.

Reviewed by Miss Meat

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