Today I watched Dave McKean’s MirrorMask (2004)
While most kids dream of running away to join the circus, Helena, our main character, wants to run away from the circus. Her parents are carnys to the bone and have sacrifices a lot to keep their family carnival open, much to Helena’s chagrin. But on one fateful night Helena’s mother collapses during a show and it seems that she will need surgery. This triggers Helena having a rather wild adventure in the classic Alice in Wonderlandian/Wizard of Ozian fantasy female coming of age style. First she sees a number of strange jugglers and musicians outside her flat at night (this setting is England by the way, they have flats.) but when she approaches them she does not recognize them as members of her family’s troupe and their dress is rather strange. Soon a viscous black mass descends upon them and turns some of them to stone, only Helena and her new companion Valentine escape. She now finds herself in a strange new world that is on the verge of collapse, it was once a glorious dual faceted city with a light and dark side, but now a certain charm has been stolen from the queen of the light side and the world is in disarray. Turns out there was another Helena native to this world, and like real world Helena this Helena wants to escape the circumstances of her birth, in this case she is the daughter of the dark queen and as the story progresses it turns out that this ‘Dark Helena’ has replaced our hero Helena in her real life, so it is a race against time to fix the world by putting everyone in the right place.
While the visual design of this film is pure Dave McKean, the story fits more into the themes and tropes of it’s writer Niel Gaiman. Gaiman loves myth, legend, and fable for their own sake it seems and I often find his stories reveling in a little too much self aware cleverness. For example the opening premise of a girl wanting to run away from the circus instead of to it is certainly neat, it’s a cute idea, but it isn’t really fleshed out beyond that, it’s a plot element that exists for it’s own sake. His genre deconstructions seem less interested in exploring the human reaction as much as they are interested in navigating the artificial landscapes he creates, he isn’t deconstructing this Alice in Wonderland style narrative to bring anything new to the table, he just loves the table. While this may not be particularly transcendental or groundbreaking, it is a solid foundation for McKean’s mind blowing visual motifs.
While the story may be nothing particularly special, the visuals really are. McKean’s style, in contrast to Gaiman’s, exposes the artistic method, sketch lines are left in obvious places to highlight the nature of this as a creation. He also tries to get into the why’s of the artistic method, the city itself is a manifestation of Helena’s own artwork after all, and it’s place in dealing with her trauma is the most fully realized and unique theme of the film. Yet, again I reiterate that the themes are not the most well realized, this is revelry in fantasy and not so much a questioning of that. That being said I still adore this film, Dave McKean is, after all, one of my absolute favorite visual artists and what the script may lack in deeper themes, his visuals do not. Likewise I also love Iain Ballamy’s jazzy electro tinged score, it matches the flavour weird that this film offers perfectly. That weird flavour is another aspect that I love, early 21st century weird fiction is my genre of choice when it comes to both literature and comics (which are literature, what am I saying?) So if your tastes line up with mine, you will dig the hell out of this flick, but otherwise I advise watching it for what it is, an offbeat presentation of well worn material, because within that framework, I think it does admirably. Oh it also has one of the best riddle scenes in film, it’s a specialty of Gaiman I think. 4/5