Directed by Dave McKean. Starring Stephanie Leonidas, Gina McKee, Rob Brydon, Jason Barry, Dora Bryan, Robert Llewellyn, Andy Hamilton. (2005, PG, 101 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 30, 2005
The work of fantasist Neil Gaiman finally makes it to the screen – with its innate sense of wonder intact, even – with this entertaining if sporadically overstuffed package of magic, mystery, and masked madwomen. Gaiman, a native Brit who now makes his home in the U.S., is revered as much for his boyishly dark good looks as for his writing (insomuch as the world of fantasy geekdom has a pinup boy to call its own, Gaiman is it). But it’s the words that flow from his pen – or iBook as the case may be – that have earned him the respect of the genre and beyond. His Sandman comics, frequently illustrated by longtime creative partner (and this film’s director) Dave McKean, have always had a timeless, epic, fairy-tale quality about them that transcends genre boundaries and places him further from Tolkien, Bradbury, and Lovecraft and closer, in spirit if not always in tone, to Machen, Dickens, and Homer. MirrorMask is the story of Helena (Leonidas), a teenage girl who longs for a normal life away from her parents, who run a peripatetic family circus. In the wake of a scorching argument fair to bursting with screechy hormonal overkill, Helena’s mother (McKee) falls desperately ill. Guilt-ridden, Helena goes to bed that night and wakes up in a dreamland populated by mirror images of the people in her waking world, all of whom wear outlandish, often unnervingly lifelike masks or, in lieu of that, sport human faces atop impossible animal bodies. There she teams up with the friendly juggler Valentine (Barry) – he looks a bit like King Friday of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood – as she searches for both a way out of her dream and a way (via a magic amulet, natch) to save her mother’s life, even as her own lusty doppelganger ingratiates herself into Helena’s real-world home. Cannily produced with the assistance of the Jim Henson Co., MirrorMask feels – like much of Gaiman’s work, including his new Anansi Boys novel – as though it had been woven together using disparate strands of cultural mythos, part pop-psychology, part-sheer flights of fantasy, but nearly all freshly formulated Gaimanisms. The Jim Henson Creature Shop is represented in nearly every frame with some new sort of freakish creature, and if nothing else MirrorMask makes for an archly cool millennial bestiary. Unfortunately, McKean’s film is shot through with a serious case of the Made-for-BBCTVs; from the acting (not too shabby) to the pacing (all over the place), MirrorMask feels like a midweek TV special, albeit a particularly inventive one. That’s not to say the film is a failure – it’s not, and there are moments of pure cinematic imagination that are wholly unique and engrossing – but simply to note that if you’re not already smitten with all things Gaiman, you may well find yourself, like Helena, a stranger in a strange land.