Mirrormask (2005), or The Division Of The Day And The Night

8 11 2009

As far as special effects go, you have to do something pretty spectacular to make me forget about the story. There has to be something truly magical in the air for me to forgo the usual logical dissection of the plot. That’s where I am with today’s amazing film from the mind of Sandman creators Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman. Mirrormask is a beautiful and achingly mystical story about the trials of youth and maturation set in a fantastic innerscape of the heart, mind and soul. It’s not often a feast for the eyes is so tantalizingly positioned for me, and it makes me both love it all the more for its achievements while hating it for its lackluster script.

We follow young heroine Helena, an emotional, creative young woman whose parents own circus. Not Barnum & Bailey; think more like a more artistic European circus with outlandish clowns and crazy foreboding color schemes. She and her mother and father perform incredible acts of daring-do, and every night they have a fun time with the other performers, who are like their extended family. But Helena is hormonal; she’s becoming a woman, and it’s not easy for her to deal. She spends most of her time daydreaming and losing herself in a world of her own fancy. It shows her amazing creativity, but she begins to prefer her own world over the real world, and it starts to erode her relationship with her parents. One night, after a performance, she petulantly lashes out at them, running away to her trailer to be alone. This stress causes her mother to collapse, sending her to a hospital where Helena is told she will require a delicate operation. Helena goes and sleeps in her room that night seriously distraught, but when she wakes, she’s not exactly in the circus anymore. She’s in a strange land, a dream-like plane where nothing is as it seems. And it seems in this world, she has found herself in the City of Light. It’s oddly beautiful, but it’s being eaten alive by shadows, who seek to devour everything in sight. And, worse yet, it seems the shadows want her specifically, because she is an exact look-alike of the Princess of Shadows. Aided only by a strange coward named Valentine, can Helena piece together the twisted story of this world and uncover her purpose in it? Or will the shadows destroy the City of Light and its plucky, eclectic denizens?

It all sounds a little generic and cheesy on paper, and it is, but it’s all about the delivery here. This is one of the most eloquent pieces of special effects artistry I’ve ever laid eyes on. It’s an amazing blend of CG, animatronics, puppetry, and camera trickery that together marks a major milestone in movie history. Created by Jim Henson Productions, the studio that brought us The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, this is again its own contained, beautiful world that feels totally alive. There are conjoined giants twisting around, floating in the sky above while shadow demons scuttle across the ground like nightmarish beasts and in the middle is a young, confused girl with a universe of bizarre imaginings between her and her home. Wonderful imagery at work here.

But, again, the story is rather weak. The whole light vs. dark thing isn’t exactly fresh, but I can deal with that.  Even though it’s similar to the story of The Dark Crystal in terms of content, I find myself wanting more distance from this character of Helena. I don’t mind a flawed character, but this chick is whiny and rather annoying. I’m reminded of the main character of Labyrinth, now that I think about it. Jennifer Connelly’s character was such a brat that I couldn’t reconcile her turn compared to her earlier, baby-hating ways. The same thing applies here; she’s not a bad person, and she’s not evil, she’s just annoying. And her sidekick, the mask-wearing Valentine, is equally annoying. What a chicken-shit yellow cur! The second he gets a chance to run in the face of danger, he pulls a Falstaffian turn and bolts! What a limp penis this guy is! Weak characters aside, the script by Neil Gaiman is good, but it doesn’t have the majesty and character of most of his works.

The actors are pretty damn good though. Stephanie Leonidas plays Helena, the wacky teen who is lost in the City of Light. She has a lot of potential as an actress, which you can see here. She has a lot of layers to her, as does any real teenager at that age; she can be sweet, bitchy, compassionate, and downright selfish at the drop of a hat, and that’s pretty hard to translate on the screen. I enjoy her a lot, and I can safely say she was the best in the film. Jason Barry is her weenie sidekick Valentine, and he also impressed. He has a lot of flair in his style that speaks to the fantastical material. He’s whimsical and charming, and that’s just what this character needed.

And let’s not forget the amazing crew. Dave McKean created the extraordinary vision encapsulated in Mirrormask, and it’s something that only he could’ve done. He alone has that beautifully twisted aesthetic, that tint over the eyes that allows for such wondrous artistic ability. As a director, he envelops the film, and while the Jim Henson presence can certainly be felt, nobody can deny that this is HIS movie. And also complimenting the cast is composer Iain Bellamy. His ethereal music, mixed with an acid jazz sensibility, really sets a mood for this dreamscape, and peppers my mind with a lot of wonderful ideas. It’s perfect for this kind of movie, and even his keen selections, such as an off-kilter remake of The Carpenters “Close to You” makes for some unforgettable scenes.

So get this movie. Forgive it’s lack of a clear or enjoyable script, or ignore it entirely. This is one of those rare occasions where it might be better to ignore it than to dwell on it too long. I admit that while it’s not perfect, Mirrormask is as beautiful as the intense language of dreams, the beatific composition of the subconscious. You’ll find yourself engrossed by the background, even if you don’t give a damn about the people in the foreground. Check it out; I give Mirrormask 8 conjoined floating giants out of 10. Huzzah!

Tomorrow we delve into the magical world of Stephen King with The Mist! Until then!