Jacob Farley is just…*sigh*…Jake is really disappointed in you, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. Here’s MirrorMask.
MirrorMask is an empty, frustrating experience; a monument to wasted potential. It’s the work of two supremely talented individuals at the top of their respective games, assuming that because they know how to do one thing well, they must obviously know how to do another thing well. They do not. I was hoping that perhaps time would be kind to my impression of the film but, sadly, I feel the exact same way now that I did ten years ago—this is not a good movie.
MirrorMask is a collaboration between comic book/fantasy literature legend Neil Gaiman and his long-time collaborator Dave McKean. They worked together for many years on the excellent fantasy comic The Sandman (which is absolutely worth reading, in the unlikely event that you were not already aware of it). Dave McKean, specifically, contributed the striking covers for every issue of the series, while Neil Gaiman provided the scripting. They’ve also done a number of other projects, both together and separately, but The Sandmanremains their best-known work.
Anyway. One weekend, the two of them were hanging around at Jim Henson’s old house (because of course they were) and they got it into their heads to make a movie. I can only assume some amount of alcohol was involved in this decision. They worked out a script over the next two weeks and then the Jim Henson Company handed them four million dollars to actually make the damn thing.
Alright, let’s just push through this—the plot of MirrorMask involves an ambiguously youthful girl named Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), who enjoys juggling and drawing in a style that suspiciously resembles the artwork of Dave McKean. Helena’s parents run what appears to be a distinctly low-budget circus—her mother Joanne (Gina McKee) operates the ticket booth and wears a gorilla suit during a mildly racist juggling act, while her father Morris (Jason Barry) is the ringleader of the circus. He also pretends to be from “darkest Peru” during the aforementioned juggling act, in which Helena also performs. Helena is having typical teen-feelings and has, all things considered, a fairly mild conflict with her mother prior to the show one night. Helena’s mother eventually collapses later in the evening and is hospitalized with what is alluded to be a brain tumor.
The night before her mother is due to have surgery, Helena falls asleep and wakes up in a tedious fantasy land that suspiciously resembles the artwork of Dave McKean. There she meets an untrustworthy (or is he?! Spoiler: Yes, he is, but he gets better) con-man named Valentine (Jason Barry). Everyone wears masks all the time and sometimes everyone treats Helena like some kind of monster because she does not have a mask, but other times nobody seems to really care all that much. This movie is so inconsistent. They put the barest amount of thought into everything that wasn’t the visuals. There is a Good Queen who is in a coma. There is a Bad Queen who is not in a coma. There is a Missing Princess who suspiciously resembles Helena. You can see where this is all going, because it is literally fairy tale fantasy boilerplate. At one point Helena obtains a really useful book which is literally titledA Really Useful Book. It’s like they weren’t even trying.
So Valentine and Helena team up, it turns out the Missing Princess is also a Bad Princess who has stolen Helena’s life while Helena is in the dream world and is using her newfound existence in the Muggle world to start fires and do makeouts with boys. Valentine and Helena must locate the mirror mask in order to return Helena to her own world before the dream world is destroyed. (The Bad Missing Princess is busily tearing up and burning all the drawings Dave McKea—er, I mean Helena made upon which the dream world is based). They find it and Helena goes home and everything is fine, she likes the circus now. Happy happy.
The story is the absolute bare bones of a plot. It’s essentially an outline of a first draft. Characters make reference to things that seem like they should have been fleshed out in a later draft of the script—at one point Helena says to Valentine that she knows they haven’t always gotten along, but she wouldn’t have gotten this far without him. All well and good, except they’ve been fast friends the entire movie. Why haven’t they always gotten along? We don’t know. It’s just a thing Helena says for no particular reason other than to, I suppose, limply attempt to tug at the audience’s heartstrings.
Bleh. This movie.
Ok, here’s the thing—fantasy is a wonderful genre. It allows us to literalize metaphor in a really fun, engaging way! It’s fun to let your imagination run wild and dream of places that could never exist. That’s wonderful. But fantasy is also an extremely dangerous genre if it’s done poorly. The audience’s suspension of disbelief can be shattered in an instant, which is why it’s incredibly important to establish the rules of the story’s universe, and then stick to those rules. How does magic work? Why is the world this way and not another way? Is the social hierarchy similar to the one in our world, or is it something new and different? If the audience feels like anything can happen at any time for no particular reason, they will lose interest rapidly, because there’s no reason to engage with the plot. Why bother getting invested with what’s going on if there’s just going to be some random bird-gorilla-flying-squirrel-hybrid who appears out of nowhere to save our heroine and then disappear without another word? Yes, that is an actual plot point from MirrorMask, thank you for wondering.
The visuals in MirrorMask are striking, no doubt (despite the large number of dream-world masks which are clearly made, at least in part, of duct tape). It can be a fun movie to just look at, even with the somewhat rickety CGI, and with the actors all experiencing what I like to think of as Phantom Menace Syndrome, where they are obviously standing in front of a green screen while someone shouts at them from off camera “Okay, now duck! There’s going to be magic sparkles hitting you in the face now, act like there are magic sparkles!” Dave McKean is a graphic stylist with a unique vision, and that’s easily the movie’s strongest point. It’s just so utterly, utterly let down by the script and story that a movie that clearly wants to be a lighthearted whimsy becomes a tedious slog. The whole movie is the equivalent of that scene in The Neverending Story where the swamp of sadness eats the horse. You just want it to be over.
Ultimately, that’s what makes MirrorMask such a frustrating experience—it has “first draft” written all over it. It could have been something good, something interesting and consistent, had Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean not been content with the first ideas that popped into their heads. It’s worth noting that elements of everything about MirrorMask recur frequently in the works of both creators. Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and The Graveyard Book and Sandmanall contain similar thematic and story elements, and Dave McKean’s multimedia art style and weird thing for fish are all over MirrorMask. Gaiman and McKean are both clearly very talented men, and I think that their own talent ironically blinded them to the ways in which the medium of film and screenwriting would require something very different from them. They went with their first instincts, the instincts that had served them well up until then, but they didn’t look any deeper or try any harder. That’s a shame. MirrorMask could have been something special, but, as it is, you should probably just re-watch Pan’s Labyrinth instead.