(Goldwyn) Stephanie Leonidas, Gina McKee, Jason Barry, Rob Brydon, Dora Bryan, Stephen Fry, Simon Harvey, Robert Llewellyn, Eryl Maynard. Directed by Dave McKean
Some of the most amazing graphic novels ever have sprung from the fertile imaginations of writer Neil Gaiman and illustrator Dave McKean. Now, the two are teaming up for a movie of unparalleled visual sense.
Helena (Leonidas) has always dreamed of running away from the circus. Her mother (McKee) and father (Brydon) run a Cirque du Soleil-esque traveling show that manages to make ends meet – just – but it isn’t the life Helena really wants. She is an imaginative girl, who spends every moment she has drawing fantastic images of strange creatures inhabiting a vast city. Her teenage impulses for doing her own thing often bump up against her parents need for her help in the overwhelming job of The Show Must Go On. After a particularly nasty argument with her mother (are there any fights worse than those between mother and daughter?) she ends with the nasty wish that she would be the death of her mother.
A little later on, her mother collapses and Helena’s world is turned upside down. Without her mother’s vital contributions, from taking tickets to her role in the show, the upcoming tour is in jeopardy. The family has never been flush to begin with, and their dwindling savings are setting off alarm bells. While her father is sticking fingers in all sorts of dykes, trying to keep the business from going under, Helena visits her mother, who pops in and out of consciousness. At length, she is told that her mother is going to have a critical operation. Helena goes to sleep, feeling betrayed.
When she wakes, she is in a place that is familiar yet unfamiliar. She meets up with a juggler/con man named Valentine (Barry), but they are interrupted by the onset of shadows, which turns the other performers into crumbling dust. As they escape, Helena realizes that the place she is in is the city she has drawn. Before she can catch her breath, she is whisked away to the palace by a palace guard that travels on stilted legs. While on her way to the palace she realizes that she can see her bedroom through certain windows and, to her shock, herself in it.
A pompous prime minister (Brydon again) who, like all the citizens wears an elaborate mask, informs her that she resembles a young girl who passed herself off as a princess of the dark side of the city, but this young girl had abused the hospitality of the white queen (McKee) and had stolen a charm. Now the white queen sleeps without waking, the balance between the light and the dark has been thrown out of whack and the city on both sides is beginning to fall apart. What is worse is that the spoiled princess has assumed Helena’s place in the real world. Helena must recover the MirrorMask and restore balance to the city and return the princess to the Dark Queen (McKee) and not incidentally, return herself to the real world.
The filmmakers have been forthcoming about being inspired by the world of Jim Henson’s film Labyrinth and the inspiration comes through markedly – in fact, Henson’s creature shop built many of the creatures that inhabit the City. Those who are familiar with McKean’s art will not find the imagery unfamiliar, particularly in the gothic nature of the city and its inhabitants, who sometimes look like a collage of images rather than a single solid idea.
This is one of the most visually impressive movies I’ve seen, with stunning creations around every corner. The settings recall Victorian England as well as Wiemar Republic Germany with a hint of the worlds of Maurice Sendak and, of course, Jim Henson. This is the sort of movie you’ll want to see several times as there’s no way you can catch all the detail in a single sitting.
The English cast does a solid job but they mostly play second fiddle to the images and sets. The problem here is mainly a pedestrian story, which relies overly much on familiar concepts explored in Labyrinth and Stephen King and Peter Straub’s The Talisman whose story it rips off virtually note for note.
Still, one can forgive the “must save mom” maudlin-ness since the real reason for this movie’s existence is to excite your sense of wonder, and it does that in spades. There are times the surreal aspects of the visuals hop on the Dali highway and take off willy-nilly, but since I like Dali it doesn’t phase me much, but those who find surreality acceptable only in small doses, be warned that the dosage here is overwhelming.
WHY RENT THIS: Dazzling, imaginative visuals that are a feast for the eyes and food for the brain. You’ll want to see this more than once but even then you won’t be able to capture everything you see.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story is a bit pedestrian and the plot creeps into the maudlin periodically.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the images might be too unsettling for younger, more impressionable sorts.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: When Helena reaches for the book “The Complete History of Everything” in the library, the book directly beside it is entitled “Muppets in Space” with the title written in the Farscape font. Both are allusions to the Jim Henson Studios, which produced the film Muppets in Space and also the TV show Farscape.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is footage from a Q&A session McKean and Gaiman did about the film at the 2005 San Diego Comicon, as well as an intriguing feature called Day 16 which shows an entire day of filming in time lapse photography.
FINAL RATING: 8/10
TOMORROW: Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian