March 10, 2006
With Ghost World (2001) and Sin City (2005), comic book creators are taking a more active role in the cinematic adaptations of their work. Following in the footsteps of people like Daniel Clowes and Frank Miller, comic book legends Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean have become filmmakers. They both rose to prominence in the comic book genre collaborating on numerous graphic novels, including the popular and critically acclaimed Sandman series. With Gaiman’s impressive storytelling ability and McKean’s dazzling eye for design, a movie wasn’t completely unheard of – it makes sense that they would do this as McKean’s artwork has always been very multimedia oriented, mixing photography with drawing and painting. He continues this approach with Mirrormask (2005) but also throws in CGI animation and music into the mix.
Helena (Leonidas) is a young girl whose parents (Brydon and McKee) own and operate a circus. Normally, it is a kid’s dream to run away and join the circus but the fun and novelty of it wears off if you’ve grown up with it your entire life. Her mother is in need of a potentially life-threatening operation and is hospitalized just as the circus begins to collapse in on itself financially. Helena is an aspiring artist with all kinds of illustrations wallpapering her bedroom (it’s like McKean’s portfolio exploded in there) and she has the most bizarre, surreal dreams.
It is during one of these dreams that she enters a strange world that resembles an oil painting where eyeballs sprout spider legs and books can be opened and used to float through this dreamworld. It’s a place where everyone wears a mask and Helena’s circus skills become quite useful. She learns that a dark shadow is falling over the land, threatening to engulf it. The City of Light is in danger of being eclipsed by the Land of Shadows and the White Queen (McKee) is asleep, unable to wake. Helena must find the Mirrormask if she hopes to defeat the Black Queen (McKee) and wake the White one.
This fantastical dreamworld and the conflict it is embroiled in is obviously Helena’s way of dealing with her real life trials and tribulations. Solving the problems in one world mirror the problems faced in the other.
As you would expect from a Gaiman/McKean production, it is very visual and rather non-linear in nature with a light façade but underneath lurks a darkness that is the hallmark of their collaborations. Every frame looks like a work of art, like one of McKean’s paintings come to life. There is so much to look at (like a landscape filled with red, spiral staircases) and it is a densely visual film much like a waking dream. Even though, at times, you may not know what is going on exactly, you trust that Gaiman’s storytelling abilities and McKean’s visuals are going somewhere. This is a smart, visually stunning movie that fans of both these men’s work will love but it is also accessible to those not familiar with their work.
There is an audio commentary by director Dave McKean and writer Neil Gaiman. Originally, McKean had shot and edited an elaborate opening credits sequence using split screens but no one like it so he reshot it. He saw Gina McKee in a film called Wonderland (1999) and wrote the role for her. The director often dominates the track as he talks about his filmmaking process. This is a decent if not unremarkable track that is okay but missing that special something which comes as something of a surprise from such articulate, entertaining guys like Gaiman and McKean.
“The Making of Mirrormask” is an eight-part making of documentary that can be viewed in its individual segments or altogether. Gaiman is interviewed and touches upon the origins of the filmmaking crew that McKean assembled for what was originally multimedia projects, then two short films and finally this movie. McKean is also interviewed and talks about how he wanted this movie to look hand-made paintings, drawings and sculptures, much like his work in the comic book genre. Jim Henson’s company was interested in following up films like The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986) with another original fantasy film and felt that Gaiman and McKean were the perfect team to do it. The cast talk about what drew them to the project and their impressions of McKean. Also included is a time lapse look at a day of shooting on a blue screen soundstage juxtaposed with the final product. We also take a look at the evolution of the Monkeybirds sequence from script read-through to set work. This shows just how much work goes into a given scene. The highlight of this doc is Q&A sessions Gaiman and McKean did at the San Diego Comic Con and at a Sundance screening. They are charming and witty as they talk about how long it took to shoot the movie, what was its inspiration and so on.
Finally, there is a “Poster and Cover Art” gallery that features various designs and concepts by McKean that is simply amazing to look at.