Friday, March 17, 2006

DVD Review: Mirrormask

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I have to admit that I am more familiar with Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s collaborations in the comic books than in anything else. Gaiman’s work in the popular “Sandman” series published by DC comics is still ranked high in the list of comics that I would always recommend other people to read. McKean’s work on the cover art for the same comic book series also remains today as the most imaginative covers on any comic book that I’ve seen to date. So when I heard that they will both collaborate on a feature length film, I have to say that I was really excited about the prospect of seeing what the result will be. Having finally able to watch “Mirrormask” on DVD recently, I have to say that the end product was a mixed bag for me.

“Mirrormask” tells the story of Helena (Stephanie Leonidas – looking eerily like a young Helena Bonham-Carter) who lives the life of a performer in a traveling circus that her family owns and operates. While other people dream to run away and join the circus, Helena longs to live a more normal life. She spends her time between juggling and other circus work by sketching to escape the boredom that she feels around her. When her mother (Gina McKee) is suddenly stricken with an undisclosed illness and rushed to hospital, her world suddenly is thrown into turmoil as the circus begin to slide into a financial and operational crisis. Helena feels especially guilty as she feels that she was responsible for her mother’s illness as she had exchanged harsh words with her mother just before her mother collapsed.

On the night before her mother’s scheduled operation, Helena falls asleep and drifts into a bizarre dream world seemingly reflecting her inner fears, guilt and turmoil. In this dream-world, Helena meets Valentine (Jason Barry) who is a fellow juggler like her who has just lost his juggling partner due to an attack by a shadow-like wraith. It is from Valentine that Helena learns that the Queen of Light (Gina McKee) who rules this land had fallen into a deep slumber and it was up to her to help release her so that she can return Helena to her world. In order to wake up the Queen of Light, Helena must obtain the Mirrormask charm that was stolen by the dark princess who had come to these lands from the domain of the Queen of Dark (Gina McKee).

Her quest to find the Mirrormask takes her to many wondrous and surreal locations that looks very much like the sketches that she has done in the real world. She also begins to unravel the mystery of what had happened to the Queen of Light and realizes that the Princess of Dark is actually a doppelganger version of herself who seems to have taken her place in the real world. She learns that the Princess, like herself, was bored with life in the Dark Kingdom and wanted to escape it all by replacing Helena with herself in the real world. Helena would later find herself captured by the Queen of Dark who wants to convert her into a copy of the daughter to replace the one that she herself had lost.

With the help of Valentine and other assorted characters that she encounters in her quest, Helena was able to free herself from the Queen of Dark and retrieve the Mirrormask charm. With the charm in hand, she was able to return herself and the Princess of Dark to their own respective places before the switch became irreversible. Helena returns to the real world a changed person with more appreciation of her life and her parents after the life changing experience that she when through in her dream world. Fittingly enough, she finds on her return to the real world that her mother had also recovered from her illness and she would have another chance to make things right with her mother. Helena returns to her life and the circus a much happier person and soon would encounter a young man who seems to be a reminiscent of the Valentine whom she shared her quest with in the dream-world.

The storyline in “Mirrormask” is something that a lot of people will be familiar with as it is influenced heavily by “Dark Crystal”, “Labyrinth”, both made earlier by the Jim Henson Company which also made this film, and by “The Wizard of Oz”. The combination of disparate storylines while seemingly ambitious at the onset grinds to a mind numbing crawl in places making the whole seem to move with dream-like speed much like what was happening on screen. Characters spend too much time arguing with others or themselves to really move the action forward that at times the audience wishes that they would just shut up and move on. When the story does start to pickup the pace again, the forward momentum is not sustained long enough before the audience is thrown into another long exposition scene.

It is a good thing that “Mirrormask” is such a visual feast to indulge in between the long narrative scenes. Dave McKean’s art has always had a 3-demensional feel to it in the printed medium that translated beautifully to the CGI rendered scenery that makes up most of the dream world. Helena’s dream-world is filled with surrealistic representations of people and places that exist in her real world which include memorable images like human-face cat sphinxes, flying fishes and gigantic floating figures locked in permanent embrace. The look of the film is definitely something that sets it apart from any other that came before it and it is amazing to see how much they have done with very little money since the reported budget for the whole movie was a relatively measly USD4 million compare to other US film productions.

There is a wealth of supplementary material on the DVD release of “Mirrormask”. The one that I found most interesting as a fan of their work is the feature length commentary included in this widescreen presentation. Both Gaiman and McKean talk at length about their experiences planning and making the film. They also provide quite a few technical description about how they created the images on screen and the limitations that they ran into with the limited budget. This fairly descriptive commentary track should be enjoyed after viewing the movie for the first time as it does delve into the secrets on how they made the beautiful CGI scenes.

“The Making of Mirrormask” featurettes is comprised of eight different segments. Each can be played separately or you can utilize the handy “play all” feature. The segments include an interviews with Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean on their background and how they came together to make the movie. We also see the behind the scenes story about how the Jim Henson Company became involved with the production of this movie after the success of the DVD releases of their earlier “Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth” movie. We also get a segment on the cast and crew of the movie talking about their experiences making the movie.

We also get 3 segments that focus on the production effort of making the movie. One that I found interesting was the “Production day 16” featurettes that used a split-screen to show the finished product on one side and the production activities that was involved on the day of filming that sequence as captured in fast motion. The notes included really highlights just how much effort it took to make the short sequence work. The other 2 production segment focuses on the creation of the Monkeybird segment seen later in the movie as well as the floating giants from the two of the more memorable scenes in the movie. As in the previous production day segment, there are no narrative going through these 3 featurettes but they do have a jazzy musical score accompanying the segment.

The featurettes conclude with “Questions and Answers” in which we see both Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean answering questions from fans about “Mirrormask”. Most of the questions came from their Mirrormask panel discussion at the San Diego Comicon (one of the biggest comics convention in the world) as well as from an early presentation of the finished filmed in the US. Both seemed clearly comfortable in front of their adoring fans and answered each questions with their own unique wit and style. While this segment may not appeal to all, fans of the pair would appreciate the featurettes as it gives them an insight on the real Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean that they have only seen before in the printed medium.

The special effects, awe – inspiring images and massive use of CGI is certainly a curious spectacle in “Mirrormask”. The story about the stress in the young girl’s life seeping into her dream world when she experiences a life changing lesson is reasonable, but not consistently compelling or particularly original. The mileage on the wealth of supplemental material on the DVD might depend on how much of a fan the viewer is with the pairs work and how much they are interested in the production of film that they have watched. “Mirrormask” is a mixed bag in terms of trying to recommend it as you can either like it or hate it with a vengeance. Like in Helena’s dream world, the grey areas are often too blurry to care.

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