Release: September 30, 2005
Distributed by: Sony Pictures
Directed by: Dave McKean
Written by:Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean
Cast:
Stephanie Leonidas - Helena
Gina McKee - Joanne
Rob Brydon - Helena's father
Jason Barry - Valentine
Dora Bryan - Nan
Robert Llewellyn - Gryphon
Andy Hamilton - Small Hairy
Fiona Reynard - Receptionist
Nik Robson - Pingo


Running away and joining a circus may seem like the ultimate escape to those of us trapped in the rat race all our lives, but those carefree clowns and jugglers and guys in gorilla suits have just as much stress and lack of fulfillment as anyone. Helena, the teenage daughter of a circus manager, would much prefer to lead a normal life in "the outside world" than continue to submit to the pressures of traveling and performing, where her only escape is covering the walls of her trailer with drawings that mix Edward Gorey and Tim Burton. One day, a particularly bad argument with her mother ends with Helena screaming "I wish you were dead!", and much to her dismay this accidental wish nearly comes true- her mother collapses and is rushed to the hospital, weakened and wasting away from an unspecified condition. With the circus on hiatus, her mother's surgery imminent, and the drab, empty city outside the circus much less enthralling than she hoped, Helena finds herself entering a surreal world populated by strangely familiar characters and menaced by a mysterious, all-consuming darkness emanating from its evil counterpart- a darkness that can only be resisted by a legendary talisman called the MirrorMask.

Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean are two extremely imaginative artists, and every inch of MirrorMask shows it. The pair have teamed up before on comic projects, and the style will be very familiar to anyone who's read them. Twisting, impossible landscapes are colored with the faded, muddy tones of ancient photographic plates. A forest of twisting, scribbly trees is suffused with slanted orange light that picks out the leaves flickering along the ground. Most of the characters besides Helena and her companions are rendered with well-designed but oddly amateurish CGI- the models look like a Sandman cover come to life, but the shading has the impossibly smooth, plastic look of early CG-for-its-own-sake concept videos. Like many childrens' stories, the world Helena explores follows ironclad rules that retroactively justify their own seemingly nonsensical applications; a bit of gibberish here and a mystifying activity there combine to let a convenient solution to whatever the current difficulty may be fall into place. Through a series of such quest/resolution sequences, Helena eventually starts to realize what the place really is and its ties to the problems she's experiencing in real life, and gain some idea of how it may be corrected and how she may escape.

However, a long series of McGuffins does not a compelling story or sympathetic characters make, and this is where the movie falls down. There is no suspense or indecision in the story; the only time the audience is unsure of what will happen next is when we share in Helena's confusion or lack of information regarding some aspect of the world. The heroine is drawn through a series of events, which either play out in her favor or don't; real conflict or deep characters are simply left out. The villain's motivations and long-term goals are never explored. A character's betrayal and subsequent redemption are not so much surprising or uplifting as simply what must happen to move Helena along her personal journey. Concepts, places, and characters are thrown up at the screen and disappear when they have served their purposes. The content of this movie would frankly be better off as an adventure game- watching it is difficult to distinguish from watching a sepia-tinted montage of all the cutscenes from American McGee's Alice and Psychonauts combined.

In the end, MirrorMask itself is stranded in the gap between two different realms: too arbitrary and linear to keep adults interested, and too vague and subtle to make good children's entertainment. Fans of Gaiman and McKean will get the most out of the visuals and ideas involved, but anyone who tries to look beyond the surface will find that the movie has much less to offer them.

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