Made in Britain: Mirrormask (2005)

This is an odd one. I’m kind of a fan of Neil Gaiman, in that I’ve read a lot of his books (never the comics), but I always end them with a feeling that something isn’t quite complete, almost that there is a hollowness at the core of his work that just doesn’t really work for me in its entirety. On the screen, on the other hand, I’ve only seen Stardust, but that did work in my opinion and was a film I seriously enjoyed. So, when I approached Mirrormask, I did so with a fair degree of scepticism. The concept struck me as hugely derivative, and although I did like the mostly TV level British cast, I wondered how a film with a budget of $4m was ever going to translate the scope and imagery of the story to the screen.

Mirrormask as mentioned is hugely derivative, frankly. The main character is Helena, a very unhappy circus girl, who hides in her imagination and artwork. Her mother Joanne  falls ill, and Helena is drawn into the world of her own drawings where the balance of light and dark has been upset. She hooks up with a weirdo juggler called Valentine and travels across the world to the dark palace. In the meantime, she meets a whole motley group of weirdos that are played by people from the circus. In the real world, in the meantime, she’s been replaced by Anti-Helena, who is the Dark Princess and the cause of the problems in the world, having thieved the Mirrormask in the first place. That’s right, think Wizard of Oz crossed with Neverending Story and a dash of Labyrinth.

This is a tough one to review, because I do admire much of it. The cast, in particular, featuring Stephanie Leonidas as Helena/ Anti-Helena, Gina McKee as Joanne and the two queens, Jason Barry as Valentine, and others such as Stephen Fry, Rob Brydon, Robert Llewelyn and so forth in minor roles are all reasonably good. Leonidas was in her early 20’s and adapts well to playing a 15 year old. It’s actually a bit of a shame that she’s not gone on to more, because she really is very pretty and clearly a competent actress. McKee is good, but shines as the Dark Queen- which is the most fun part, and Barry, while omnipresent can be a touch irritating, although his mask doesn’t help him.

Then there’s the script. This is also OK. It may be derivative as hell, being so easy to spot the inspirations, but there are many good lines in the film. Valentine’s explanation at Helena as to how can anyone know how you are feeling if you don’t wear a mask is a clever inversion of the norm with masks (metaphorical or otherwise) generally being used to hide your feelings. Helena’s exclamation about the behaviour of Anti-Helena is a cracking line, and the general plot of the film is obviously well considered.

What isn’t so well considered is the pacing. Mirrormask drags heavily in places, and has an episodic feel that doesn’t do the overall story any favours. It just seems to limp from one point to the next with little happening, and the action quite often feels like an excuse for lavish and elaborate imagery. There’s no sense of drive to the film, with director Dave McKean more than happy to just show us his fanciful oddities rather than inject any urgency into proceedings.   The world is ending, because the balance has been upset, and Helena is on a quest to save herself and return to our world, and yet we never have any sense of the clock ticking. Even scenes such as the darkness taking the giant suffer from this seemingly sedate pace, as this should be a desperate race against time, yet it just doesn’t feel like it.

McKean has, on the other hand, created some fantastic imagery here with the Sphinx Cat or the Monkey Birds being weird and wonderful creations. However, there’s a serious problem to the cinematography. The world of the circus is bright, colourful and chaotic, yet on the other hand, the Dali-influenced world of the Mirrormask is sepia and dingy looking. This is almost a polar inversion of Wizard of Oz where Dorothy emerges from the black and white of her world into the glorious Technicolor of Oz. The vast majority of the film was done on green screen, for obvious budgetary reasons, but it all feels so lacking in colour that this amazing fantasy world doesn’t grab the attention, and just feels so drab. Which is a real shame, in my opinion, because the design is very, very impressive.

Overall, Mirrormask is another Curate’s Egg of a film, being good in parts. There’s plenty to admire here, but it feels a touch cold and I can’t think of anything really to love. I want to like it for the ambition and skill shown, but it’s simply to derivative and too dingy to really deserve any acclaim. At the end of the day Mirrormask is a thoroughly “meh” film. If you see it on the box, then it’ll pass the time in a painless enough way.

It’s a shame, actually, because there is the germ of something really quite special here and you can see all the component pieces in place, but Mirrormask simply doesn’t work.

Until next time,


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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

15 responses to “Made in Britain: Mirrormask (2005)”

  1. Bartleby says :

    Solid review. I ate this up when I saw it, but it was undoubtedly all down to the visuals. The story is a basic patchwork, but unlike something like Coraline, it doesn’t have enough of it’s own pizazz.

    I think this comes down to the fact that McKean is an illustrator not a filmmaker, and Gaiman didn’t actually write this as a novel, he cobbled it together with McKean. It’s telling that the tabletop book that was spawned from it is pretty much as effective as the movie, minus the charm Leonidas brings to the part.

    I like it more than you—although I’ve not returned to it in quite awhile—but I do see where you are coming from.

    Ebert summed it up well back when he reviewed the film:

    ‘But there’s no narrative engine to pull us past the visual scenery. Landscapes recede vaguely into dissolving grotesqueries as Helena wanders endlessly past one damn thing after another, and since everything that happens in this world is absolutely arbitrary, there’s no way to judge whether any action is helpful or not. It’s a world where no matter what Helena does, an unanticipated development will undo her effort and require her to do something else. Watching “MirrorMask,” I suspected the filmmakers began with a lot of ideas about how the movie should look, but without a clue about pacing, plotting or destination. ‘

    You know what film I think of when I see this, although they are fundamentally different? Ink, which was made for less and doesn’t look as pretty but I imagine a merger of the ideas and sensebilities of the two movies would frankly be pretty amazing. Let Winans direct and McKean design and see what happens.

    • Jarv says :

      I thought Ink as well, actually.

      My other complaint is how similar the colours looked. The model here should have been something like the Dark Crystal, because the overwhelming use of sepia in the film made it very hard to care about, or even distinguish between, the various places they visited.

      Ebert is absolutely spot on about this. Sadly.

      Still, it’s not awful, just not particularly great.

      • Jarv says :

        Oh, and minus points to Gaiman for stealing a riddle I first heard from The Riddler himself back in the 80’s. Poor Neil, poor.

  2. Xiphos0311 says :

    Gaiman? No thanks

  3. MORBIUS says :

    Have this at my Branch Library, Never interested enough

    to invest the time to watch it. Based on your review,

    methinks the right decision was made.

  4. Droid says :

    To me this sounds like The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, with all it’s inherent qualities and problems. Might give this one a miss.

  5. ThereWolf says :

    Christ, I’d forgotten about ‘Mirrormask’. Is this really 2005, feels like it’s from way back. The trailer for this is on a DVD I’ve got – can’t remember which one – and there was a spell when I kept returning to the trailer; the imagery interested me, but in the end not enough to seek out the film. I might do now though…

    Well said about Gaiman – that’s how I feel about him; “…something isn’t quite complete, almost that there is a hollowness at the core of his work…”

    Good stuff, Jarvis.

    • Jarv says :

      It’s true about Gaiman. I’ve read quite a few, and the only one I’d consider satisfying is American Gods (looking forward to the TV series).

      Neverwhere in particular is very unsatisfying.

      • ThereWolf says :

        I couldn’t get into ‘American Gods’. I tried really hard, always picking it up, putting it down, etc. Got through it but I was left totally unmoved.

        I can’t put my finger on anything specific, just didn’t enjoy it.

        Haven’t read ‘Neverwhere’.

  6. Toadkillerdog says :

    Great review Jarv, I could not agree more. Spot on about Gaiman as well. There really is something “missing” from his work. He is a talented creative force, but it feels as if he has no center – or at least is unable to express it. A lot of build up but no payoff.

    • Jarv says :

      It’s funny, they just seem to lack heart. Everything is there, but very often with an unsatisfactory conclusion and partially underdeveloped characters. Anansi Boys was particularly bad on this front.

    • Toadkillerdog says :

      His comics were like that as well. His talent was manifest, but I never connected on a visceral level with him – he was just too distant.

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