MirrorMask is what I imagine it is like inside the head of Dave McKean. It feels like the three-dimensional realisation of what goes on inside the mind of a gifted artist, who sees the world ever so slightly different to the rest of the world.
Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) is a 15-year-old who reluctantly appears in her parents’ struggling circus as a juggler. After an explosive row with her mother (Gina McKee), her mum falls very ill, requiring hospitalisation and exploratory surgery, leaving Helena feeling extremely guilty.
Helena is a very good artist, her work (fortunately done in exactly the same style as Dave McKean) adorning every inch of her bedroom walls. In her troubled sleep about her mother, she enters a dreamworld based on the drawings, where she meets a friend, Harlequin, who wears a mask, like everyone in this place, as well as her father (Rob Brydon) in the form of the prime minister, and her mother in the form of the White Queen, who is in a deep sleep after the princess of the Black Queen, also her mother, visited the city of light. Helena vows to find the MirrorMask which will help everybody in this strange city, as she also comes to realise that the princess has taken her place in the real world, and is threatening to lock her away in her place forever.
Most importantly, this film is visually stunning, as would be expected from such a great design stylist as McKean. The eerie oddness of the MirrorMask world feels like a dream made real, with sphinxes and cats with human heads and soldiers who seem to be on stilts. To think they only had a few million to create the visuals makes it even more impressive. The story, perhaps surprisingly, isn’t as strong; the young girl making the choices in her growth to womanhood through a quest seems somehow familiar, not filled with narrative intricacies that might be expected from Neil Gaiman, whose written work (both comic book and prose) I admire. I don’t know if this is deliberate, evoking all those stories and ideas into a tale that feels old and well-told, but where it might work in a book, it seems not enough to justify a film, which is a different medium.
The actors feel right for their parts, and the Britishness of it all is emphasised by the familiar voices of Stephen Fry, Robert Llewellyn and Lenny Henry. But it is Leonidas who shines, a naturalness to her acting that roots the surreal in something believable, that allows MirrorMask to be as bizarre as possible without seeming silly. Not a perfect film by any means, it is enjoyable and beautiful to look at, and leaves you to wonder at what they could produce with a decent budget.