Neverending Hike Through Simon's Dark Crystalized Wonderland
|MirrorMask's trip seems familiar.|
Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) is a talented artist with an active imagination.
Much to her parents' chagrin she doesn't share their love
of the circus they run and own. After yet another fight, and out of frustration,
Helena tells her mother (Gina McKee) that she wishes she would die. Minutes
later, Helena's mother mysteriously collapses. Feeling guilty for
what she said, Helena blames herself for her mother's illness.
The evening before her mother's surgery, Helena dreams of an odd
city inhabited by a myriad of absurd and eccentric creatures based on
the ink and pen drawings that line her walls. The city's White Queen
(Gina McKee) has fallen ill and unless Helena can find the MirrorMask
and use it to awaken the White Queen, not only will the city be consumed
by darkness, but Helena may not be able to return to the real world.
Director Dave McKean and writer Neal Gaiman — most identified with
his work on the Sandman comic — already have a huge hurdle
to overcome in MirrorMask. No other genre is filled with as many
archetypes as fantasy.
Built on a foundation of religious allegory, fables, fairytales, myths
and legends the characters and storylines that dominate fantasy are intricately
woven into our collective and historical consciousness. And even when
there are no tangible connections, historically or geographically between
cultures, variants of these stories appear in traditions around the world
time and time again.
Versions of Cinderella have appeared in Korea, Russia, Vietnam and West
Africa. Nearly every post-Star Wars geek knows that, via Joseph Campbell
and his Hero with a Thousand Faces, Lucas found inspiration for Luke's
story in the myriad of hero myths that have existed as long as man has
been telling stories.
Increasing the difficulty for McKean and Gaiman are the number of iconic
fantasy films that are a part of our film language. So when a story is
as underdeveloped as MirrorMask's is, imaginative creatures like
McKean and Gaiman's sphinx instantly bring Alice in Wonderland's
Cheshire cat to mind. When the Dark Queen's mannequin-like servants
dress Helena, one thinks of the singing and dancing mice from Cinderella's
ball gown sequence.
There's even a touch of Japanese animation powerhouse Hayao Miyazaki
(Princess Mononoke, Howl's Moving Castle) in not only the story's
flow, but also in the design of the both the creatures and the world they
inhabit. (The Miyazaki influence probably isn't a coincidence considering
Gaiman scripted the English translation of Princess Mononoke.)
These allusions wouldn't be such a distraction if MirrorMask had
some concrete whys and what-fors. Gaiman's screenplay offers us
several, but neither he nor McKean's direction ever settles on any
Is Helena's quest to save her mother, or is it to have her mother
accept her as she is? What exactly is the point of Helena's doppelganger?
Was she real or was she, as a product of Helena's guilt, Helena's
immaturity personified? Why is Helena's relationship with her mother
so much more acrimonious than with her father? And of course there's
the big question that remains unanswered. Was Helena's journey real
The impression is that either both McKean and Gaiman, knowing how familiar
Helena's quest would be to most audiences, made a conscious decision
to rely on the production design to gloss over the gaps — which
is unlikely. Or, in trying to cover so much territory in a two hour movie,
were simply overambitious. (Allegedly, McKean and Gaiman outlined the
story over a three day period and it was during filming that they filled
in the details.)
One of the strengths of a novel is that not only can it raise a thousand
questions, there's enough space to give a thousand contradictory
answers and still leave an audience satisfied. And watching MirrorMask
I couldn't help feel that as a novel the story would have had been
more than just the sum of its parts. But, no matter how inspired the imagery
of MirrorMask is, as a film, it's a hurdle that McKean and Gaiman
just can't overcome.
Charles Judson is a local screen and comic book writer and regular reviewer for cinemATL.