Which pretty much sums up MirrorMask as a film: odd, eerie, surreal, really, and visually stunning. It also features saxophone players, just so everyone knows why I found it a bit eerie to walk past one at nine in the night. A single, lonely saxophone player. Anyhow: if you have not heard of MirrorMask, and there's no reason you should have, it's the first feature film by Dave McKean, who is responsible for one of the finest graphic novels, Cages, and many surreal and fantastic images in the world. The film has also been scripted by Neil Gaiman, who, along with McKean, produced the graphic novels Violent Cases, Signal to Noise, and the utterly fantastic Mr Punch, among others. Gaiman is also responsible for the novel American Gods, which is probably his best to date.
In short: McKean and Gaiman are old hands in the fields they made their names. This, however, is their first joint feature film.
MirrorMask is about a teenage girl, Helena, who works in a circus (juggling, mostly) with her mum and dad, but longs to be doing something different in that classic teen angst scenario. Before one performance, she tells her mum that she wishes she was dead and, somewhat unsurprisingly, she becomes ill shortly after because everyone knows that in the narrative of young girls and their mothers, a young girl saying "I wish you were dead" is pretty much like placing a loaded gun to her mum's head. Naturally, Helena has some guilt about this, and soon finds herself in a strange world being engulfed by darkness, with a masked man called Valentine as her companion, and trying to find a charm that will make this strange world right for everyone but mostly her mum her her back in the real world. It's pretty much Wizard of Oz territory, really.
The film, much like Gaiman and McKean's graphic novel collaborations, belongs to McKean. Images of fish flowing through the air on a street, boxes that unfold to tell stories in little paper cut outs, Escher like staircases and rock people, and dozens of other beautifully designed and odd things dot the dream world that Helena finds herself in. To some extend, they overwhelm the simple metaphoric narrative of a girl dealing with her mother's sickness and approach into adulthood that Gaiman provides. While this is the case, however, it's interesting to make a comparison between MirrorMask and McKean and Gaiman's 1987 Violent Cases, one of their first collaborations, and which is a story about a young boy coming much to terms with adultness in the way that Helena comes to terms with her own in MirrorMask, though with reference to Al Capone instead. Like the film, McKean's illustrations and style often overwhelm Gaiman's simple story in Violent Cases, and it is not until they return in 1989 in Signal to Noise, with the story of a dying movie director, that Gaiman has crafted a story that isn't overwhelmed by McKean's art.
Which is my way of saying that, if the McKean and Gaiman film collaborations continue, then MirrorMask follows in the steps that the pair made with their graphic novels, and that when viewed as that, it lays a solid foundation for what they may give us on their next collaboration. Of course, this being the film medium, it may be that this isn't the case, and even if not, MirrorMask remains quite a solid film.
I don't want to underplay Gaiman's contribution to the film: his dialogue is sharp, and he manages to side step neatly the problems with a narrative built around being in a dream. But there is very much a sense of him, as a script writer, still getting his feet in the medium, and thus not deviating hugely from what he knows will work. Likewise, McKean is not showing a huge amount of deviation from what he is expected to bring, either. MirrorMask is a live action film of Dave McKean's beautiful art work, and that is both it's strength and weakness. McKean has not so much as crafted a film, but rather a visual tour of his surreal world. As such, story was always going to take second place.
Be as that may, however, I do recommend the film if you're curious. Years from now, it's going to play on SBS, with a tiny cult following, I assure you.