MirrorMask proves that a movie can be brilliant and awful at the same time. The most instructive credit on the film is “Designed and Directed by Dave McKean,” and that sounds about right: designed first, then directed. McKean, a vastly gifted artist who’s illustrated children’s books and comic-book covers, has made an art major’s dream movie. And Neil Gaiman, his longtime friend and collaborator, has enabled McKean’s visual fancies by writing a script that functions as a clothesline on which to hang baffling, shimmering imagery. MirrorMask is unquestionably the work of an artist, but it’s not the work of a film artist. Production-designed to beyond an inch of its life, it dawdles and harrumphs when it should soar.
Stephanie Leonidas is Helena, the teen heroine whose predicament is a facile inversion of the usual little-girl dilemma in fantasies: Rather than longing to escape a humdrum life and enter a world of fun and color, Helena has been brought up by circus-performer parents and dreams of escaping into a humdrum life. McKean and Gaiman capture the performer’s discontent, the constant money problems, the inability to function in the “real world.” A typical rebellious girl, Helena is sick of putting on fabulous costumes and hanging out with trapeze artists and mimes. When Helena’s mom (Gina McKee) takes ill, we see some of the real world — Helena stays with her TV-addicted aunt, and McKean stacks the visual deck by making these scenes drab and blue.
Then, apparently, Helena gets her escape — into a teeming universe where her mission is to awaken the White Queen with a charm known as the MirrorMask. She’s accompanied by an annoying juggler (Jason Barry), who, like everyone else in this world, wears a mask. The movie essentially becomes a protracted dream sequence, a tip of the hat to The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland and many other books and movies you and Neil Gaiman have seen and read. The mix of dream logic and conventional quest narrative doesn’t come off here, because McKean, having labored at length on this low-budget project, wants you to see every bit of weirdness he and his underpaid team have put on the screen. So we get eyeball spiders, hovering giants that talk like Ents, angular sphinxes, and much, much more.
Every frame of this is ravishing and worth isolating and framing. But after a while, even the visuals grate on the eye; the too-muchness of the art will no doubt delight some and bore others. MirrorMask is the perfect midnight movie for stoners in the mood to park in front of something that doesn’t make a lot of sense. I found it almost unbearably whimsical at times, altogether too content with its own visual ingenuity. Sometimes an image or even a sequence is entrancing — the highlight for me was a trippy scene set to a swooning cover of the Carpenter’s “Close to You” in which Helena is given a killer goth makeover. (Which also turns her into “the anti-Helena,” which may disappoint goth fans of Gaiman and McKean.) But it was a mistake to stay inside Helena’s dreamworld for most of the running time. We’re supposed to see parallels between this world and the real world, and we get glimpses of possible futures and sideways glances at what Helena might become without a mom. At heart the movie is about saying “I’m sorry” to Mum and learning to be happy with your family.
As a fan of Gaiman and McKean, and a supporter of off-kilter projects like this, I wanted and expected to love MirrorMask. I suppose I expected to be as surprised and diverted by Gaiman’s story as I often have been by his work in comics and in fiction. And an hour and forty-one minutes of swimming around in Dave McKean’s visual imagination sounded fine to me. But the story is thin and too easily dwarfed by the incessant bizarre imagery, which struck me as ugly as often as beautiful. I can count on one hand the number of normal-looking shots in the film, and the movie needed more normalcy, more contrast, more respite from McKean’s exhaustive cleverness. Some will take MirrorMask as a lovely banquet, and I wouldn’t dream of arguing the point — it’s the kind of movie that gets a strong reaction one way or the other, both equally valid. But a little of it went a long way with me.