An Alice in Wonderland style adventure, MirrorMask was apparently commissioned when executives at Sony realised that two Jim Henson-created films, Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal (a favourite of mine), which were regarded as flops at the time of their release, had gone on to generate a pretty much constant stream of sales on video and DVD, and so they wanted something new in the same vein. It’s a pity they didn’t have the courage of their convictions to back the idea with a good sized budget, because the result, MirrorMask, has a made-for-TV feel to it, perhaps due to the rather flat, overbright lighting that resulted from, as director Dave McKean points out in an interview included as an extra on the DVD, their not being able to afford the sort of full-scale 3D rendering required for the really complex ray-tracing that sets big budget animated and FX-driven blockbusters apart in terms of final look and polish.
MirrorMask starts in the real world, with teen Helena (played with a lot of charisma by Stephanie Leonidas) grumbling about having to work in her parents’ circus. Then her mother falls ill and Helena retreats into a dream world created out of her many drawings. The dream-world’s Queen of Light (played by Gina McKee, who also plays Helena’s mother) is in some sort of coma, from which she can only be awoken by a certain charm; meanwhile the Queen of Darkness is sending out dark tentacles that calcify whatever they touch. Helena decides to go on a quest to wake up the Queen of Light, only to discover that her place in the real world has been taken by the Queen of Darkness’s daughter, on the run from her over-protective mother.
It seems a bit mean to criticise a film for having ambitions above its budget, particularly as this is Dave McKean’s first full-length movie, and something he is obviously passionate about. (You only have to listen to the DVD commentary, where co-writer Neil Gaiman has nothing to contribute aside from the occasional interruption along the lines of, “Oh, look at that there, that’ll become significant later,” whereas McKean sounds like he could fill another DVD or two.) The dream-world he creates is full of visual invention — though I’d say over-full, because it never quite gels into feeling like one place, but shifts in tone and feel from scene to scene. For instance, some of the world’s inhabitants are human in all but that they wear masks, whereas others are barely-human collages of objects. (The police force are so weird I couldn’t work out at all what they were supposed to be.) In terms of the action, threats arise suddenly and inexplicably, and are often escaped without any clear indication of how it was managed. (For instance, when Helena and Valentine go to see the two floating giants and are forced to flee when the Queen of Darkness’s black, calcifying tentacles close in — why don’t the tentacles keep chasing Helena and Valentine? How do they escape these things that are obviously so fast and powerful?) In such a truly dream-like world, it’s difficult to feel at home and allow yourself any expectations of what’s going to happen next in the story, and so the result is a film that, for me, looks great in stills and individual scenes, but which doesn’t quite have the immersive quality of The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth.