Mirrormask is the sort of dreamplane you encounter when falling asleep while staring at a Ernst . Or (hey!) maybe a McKean. Dave McKean is a noted illustrator and graphic artist who’s primarily made his name in the field of comics, providing distinctive art for some relatively high-profile projects. Perhaps most notably, McKean regularly provided covers for Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed series Sandman. McKean’s efforts demonstrated that the old adage about judging books may not apply to comics as the striking covers accurately announced Sandman as literate, complex and utterly different from the other material sharing space on the comic shop new release rack.
Agggh. Enough links!
Okay…there’ll be one more.
For his feature-length directorial debut (he’s got a couple shorts to his credit), McKean drafted his old pal Gaiman, now carrying the added cachet and credibility that comes with being a best-selling novelist, to help him realize a story about a young girl who finds herself in a fantastical land when her family life is beset by a dire situation.
It’s really a big, dark fairy tale. While movies like this aren’t usually my cup of pennyroyal tea, Mirrormask largely succeeds through the clear conviction of the creators and the seeming strength of the collaboration between McKean and Gaiman. McKean layers the screen with astonishing imagery and Gaiman (I’m guessing) keeps things grounded in story. It’s easy for a film that this to get too enamored in the wild worlds being created and become self-limiting. The art design eclipses all other purposes of the film and the viewing experience becomes little different from flipping through a collection of very pretty, oh-so-arty postcards. While Mirrormask doesn’t completely avoid this, it generally manages to remain engaging due to undercurrents of real thought and satisfying thematic explorations. The lead character, a teenage girl named Helena whose life has been filled with more fanciful distractions than she’d care for, is well-drawn and engagingly played by Stephanie Leonidas.
And here’s where Gaiman’s influence seems to register most apparently. One of things that Gaiman excels at doing is establishing the mundane within the fantastical and vice versa. There’s a unique solidity here. The film takes time to explore the fallibility of humans and the ache of loss rather than being about little more than a succession of startling images. The imagery enhances the story when it could have easily subsumed it.
In the end, it’s still a fairy tale and follows well-established pattern to get from “once upon a time” to (spoiler warning!) “happily ever after.” Sometimes it’s hard to dance expressively when you’re following numbered footsteps painted on the floor. And then there’s the subtext which seems to tell fifteen-year-old girls that everything in the world is bad if they’re getting angry with their parents, kissing boys and wearing Goth ClothesTM. There’s something discordant about a deeply creative film advocating (even softly and inadvertently) obedience and conformity. But while the story remains predominant, these quibbles do fade quickly when the splendor of McKean’s projected imagination asserts itself.