“I want to run away and join real life!” screams Helena, the teen circus juggling sensation. Her mother’s outside her trailer, ordering Helena to get dressed and prepare to perform to a packed house of eager children.
“Helena, you couldn’t handle real life,” her mother answers, just before she collapses backstage, propelling Helena into an unforgettable world of giants, sphinxes, and little monkeys with wings. If you’re hearing echos of “Labyrinth,” then you’re getting the idea. Produced by the Jim Henson Company, “Mirrormask” is the only film made by anyone in the last decade or two that lives up the grand legacy set by the production house’s late, great founder. When the company– once an immeasurable force of inspiration and innovation, responsible for the careers of countless creative professionals in every imaginable field– decided it was time to stop making movies like “Muppets In Space” and return to the world of the fantastic, there were really only two calls to make.
“Mirrormask” is the groundbreaking feature-length debut from highly acclaimed director/illustrator/designer Dave McKean, best known for his numerous collaborations with novelist and comics scribe Neil Gaiman, who provides the film’s screenplay. With more awards between them for achievements in illustration and fantasy fiction than virtually anyone else living today, the celebrated creators were ideally suited to bring Jim Henson Productions back to glory.
“Dave and I created the story and script for ‘Mirrormask’ in the Henson family Home in London,” says Gaiman in the film’s press packet. “[We were] surrounded by memorabilia and artifacts from Jim Henson’s astonishing career in television and fantasy filmmaking. It was a true challenge and inspiration to try to make something today that would be as visually rich, creative, funny and as moving as Jim Henson’s original works.”
Like “Labyrinth,” “Mirrormask” follows its young protagonist on a journey of self-discovery prompted by immense regret. Fed up with the obligation of life in the family circus, Helena openly defies her mother, going so far as to sneeringly wish death upon her. When Helena’s mother falls ill with an unspecified, but presumably cancerous infection, Helena is all but destroyed. Like Sarah in Henson’s “Labyrinth,” Helena’s guilt consumes her every waking– and non-waking– thought. On the eve of her mother’s critical surgery, Helena awakes in the Dark Land, a fantastic world of dreamscapes, nightmares and otherworldly creatures, the appearances of which will be familiar to fans of McKean’s work. As in many of his illustrations, every character in the Dark Lands wears an elaborate headpiece or mask, except for Helena, who is mocked for her “bizarre” and malleable face.
Like Jim Henson before them, McKean, Gaiman, and the film’s producers were forced to created new and unorthodox methods of working in order to get McKean’s complex and idiosyncratic visual style vision on the big screen, especially on their limited budget.
“[I] learned that you don’t start up a new computer-rendering studio during production,” says McKean in the film’s press packet. Two weeks of live-action shoots in England were followed by four weeks in a blue screen studio, a scenario most filmmakers would characterize as resoundingly insurmountable, given “Mirrormask’s” independent budget. The whole team put their heads together to create a process that mixed not just new technology, but also off-the-shelf hardware to create the almost wholly CGI landscapes of “Mirrormask.”
“The [computers] need at least three months to get to know each other before an animator goes anywhere near them,” says McKean. “I learned that computers are as human as the rest of us. Our technical director named all the machines after different bands. The four Macs in the edit suite were named after the Beatles; fair enough, I was John. But then we needed a fifth so he named it Yoko, and they all stopped talking to each other.”
The experience of watching a Dave McKean illustration move around and talk is one that audiences will remember always. So rich and beautiful are the characters and environments of “Mirrormask’s” Dark Lands, viewers are likely to be struck with an intense depression for several hours after leaving the cinema and walking out into our mundane, angular world, especially after experiencing such an alien place through the wide-eyed wonderment of Gaiman’s Helena character, deftly portrayed by actress Stephanie Leonidas. Part Sarah (“Labyrinth”) and part Alice (In Wonderland), Helena adds to the mix an irreverent and tenacious attitude that viewers both young and old will find perhaps more realistic and identifiable than her children’s fantasy and science-fiction ancestors.
Fans of Gaiman’s comics and children’s books will be elated to hear his trademarked cleverer-than-thou dialogue spoken aloud by actual humans, although some may be disappointed by how much “Mirrormask’s” script owes to other considerably well-known works, including his own. Like in Gaiman’s “Coraline,” Helena finds herself in contact with alternate versions of people and places familiar to her. Every window in the Dark Lands looks into Helena’s real life by way of the innumerable drawings of buildings and houses she’s pasted up on her bedroom wall. When it becomes clear that the Anti-Helena who’s replaced her in The Real World is steadily tearing down all the portals to the Dark Lands, Helena and her sardonic, juggling friend Valentine must race against time and obtain the mysterious Mirrormask, an object of enormous power that is her only hope of returning to her sick mother’s side.
Some viewers, like parents, may be put off slightly by “Mirrormask’s” decidedly leisurely pace, and the Gaiman-McKean faithful will appreciate the film as the highest caliber of homage. But this is not a movie that comes out, makes some money and then disappears. The result of this team’s efforts is a visually and emotionally compelling film that in every way lifts the artistry of Gaiman and McKean off the page and projects it with total clarity onto the imaginations of everyone who sees it. “Mirrormask” is here to stay; to be remembered by the children of today in the same way previous generations remember Jim Henson’s own masterpieces.