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MirrorMask   (released 10/17/2005)
By Neil Norman

If you are an aficionado of Narrative art, Comic books, and Graphic Novels, you know these creators already. If not, prepare for your introduction. When you cross a famous Magician of Words with one of the most striking Visual artists in popular entertainment today, the result is MirrorMask, a Fantasy film masterpiece. While Screenwriter and Novelist Neil Gaiman is arguably the more famous of the two in their nearly 20 year creative partnership, this picture is really Director and Multimedia Artist Dave McKean's step into the mainstream limelight. Recognition of his masterful manipulation of visual images and creative genius is well deserved. MirrorMask is a mind-blowing trip into the world of digital animation and creative mythology. In conjunction with the Jim Henson Company, who produced the film, these two mythmakers create a visually stunning addition to the canon of fantasy motion pictures represented by films like The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, and The Princess Bride.

MirrorMask Screenwriter Neil Gaiman with Neil NormanMirrorMask is the story of Helena, played by Stephanie Leonidas, a budding teenaged artist who works in her parent's circus. Helena is conflicted with the whimsical world of the circus and yearns to spend time completing her drawings (McKean's Original compositions that comprise the set dressings of Helena's room) and doing her own thing. Instead of being happy with every kids dream job, she wants to "run away and join real life." Helena gets her chance after an argument with her mom when she vindictively responds "I wish I was!" to the exasperated mom-ism, "You're going to be the death of me!" Mom collapses backstage in the middle of a performance and is stricken with an illness. We never learn what ailment she has, which makes it seem all the more crushing. We perceive the condition from Helena's point of view. It doesn't matter what the ailment is, but the fact that it is present. Helena's struggles with thinking she caused her mom's sickness and her own desire for independence. When she sleeps, she is transported into a topsy-turvy dream world of darkness and light. The characters of her normal life are present in altered states, and everyone wears masks. Helena meets a traveling performer named Valentine, played by Jason Barry, whose visage looks a bit like an inexpressive Bart Simpson. He becomes her sidekick and "manager," as they quest for the Mirormask, a charm said to be able to wake the Light Queen from her magical slumber.

In the story, Gaiman channels Lewis Carroll, Frank Baum, J.M. Barrie, and C.S. Lewis, in creating his own version of Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey. The tale is basically a children's story that is so good that adults are captivated into following along, even if they can't completely understand due to their own gradual detachment from the magic caused by growing up. Themes of duality and growing pains intermingle with mythic archetypes and allusions to other fantasy works from both film and literature, creating a rich work on both mythological and psychological levels. Gaiman borrows from other storytelling traditions, but none of it seems cliché.

The real magic of the film is in the beautiful adaptation of McKean's recognizable style into the animated wonderland of the dream world. This film is the best mélange of live action actors and animation since Pink Floyd's: The Wall. The stunning visuals break new ground in technical presentation and illustrate a world in which there is so much going on, that repeated viewings of the film will result in you seeing something new each time. McKean successfully uses imagery that imaginatively illustrates the dream world and how it conflicts with Helena's real world. But who is to be so sure as to which world is more real? The sphinxes, and the mated, floating stone giants, and the Lovecraftian tentacles of darkness were some of my favorite digital effects. The look of the film is monumentally impressive. You almost have to wear sunglasses in the theater, it is so stimulating to the eye.

This film is destined for cult stardom, and I wouldn't be surprised if it is commercially successful, too. What is important is that McKean and Gaiman have created this gem from the heart. They have purposely kept it small (4 million dollar budget) and in their own creative control. The result is breathtaking. Please support this film. Take your kids to see it too!

Neil Norman is a freelance writer and a graduate of the University of Central Florida. Neil also works on independent film productions.

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