(Dave McKean, UK/USA, 2005)


MirrorMask marks the somewhat unlikely but surprisingly successful meeting of two very different cultures: on the one hand, the genre of animated entertainment for kids associated with The Jim Henson Company (The Muppets); and, on the other hand, the edgy, graphic-novel style of design and narrative practiced by director Dave McKean in his novel Cages (1990-6) or his various collaborations with John Cale, and writer Neil Gaiman (Beowulf, 2007).

For its first few minutes, as we are introduced to the frantic life of a family-run British circus, it seems as if MirrorMask will lean more to the cuteness of The Muppets than the Gothic visions of McKean and Gaiman.

But the moment we are introduced to the feisty teenager Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) and the imaginary world she has conjured up in the prolific drawings stuck to the walls of her caravan, the film finds its rightful tone.

To abstract the movie into a plot outline would make it seem like almost every other fantasy fable devised for children in recent years: there is family torn apart by arguments, a shadow realm known as the Dark Lands, and multiple roles for the main actors that span the real and alternate universes.

For instance, Helena's mother, Joanne (Gina McKee), appears both as the Queen of Light and the Queen of Shadows, while Valentine (Jason Barry), Helena's bumbling and cowardly sidekick for her magical adventure, eventually turns up in the everyday as a potential boyfriend.

The moral issues – being able to apologise, overcoming one's fears, facing the confusions of pubescence, and so on – are pretty standard themes for a story of this type. What is not standard is the richly detailed design of the film, pieced together by McKean using many techniques (live action, digital animation, computer-generated backdrops).

This is a deliberately primitive look, in which the seams between different visual blocks are displayed – thus allowing the viewer's imagination more room to move and dream. Simple line drawings and printed words count as much as grand, Baroque cityscapes. Ultimately, the film is much closer to the perverse mayhem of Monkeybone (2001) than the reassuring pieties of the Harry Potter cycle.

On the stylistic level, McKean and Gaiman have, in their inspired debut feature effort, surpassed recent works by Terry Gilliam (The Brothers Grimm, 2005) and Tim Burton (Corpse Bride, 2005), as well as the Australian short The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello (2005).

There is much to enjoy and savour in MirrorMask – a film whose cult following will, I suspect, grow slowly. Leonidas, at the centre of virtually every scene, brightly sustains the human interest of the story, while around her the constantly changing visual ideas evoke the best animated films of Jan Svankmajer or the Brothers Quay.

And a particularly clever scene culminates in what is sure to become an oft-quoted, classic line from Valentine: "I don't want to be a waiter!"

© Adrian Martin December 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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