With Neil Gaiman, noted fantasy writer, and creator of the amazing comic “Sandman”, and Dave McKean the illustrator and creator heading the creative team, the Henson legacy of puppets, Muppets, dark fantasy, and lavishly creative monsters continues, with a new and modern twist. “Mirrormask”, like “Labyrinth” and “The Dark Crystal” before it, is a dark fantasy for children and adults that incorporates both good, evil, beautiful, and ugly, into a long dreamlike sequence that can be equally frightening as it is fun. With a very good cast and some amazing special effects, “Mirrormask” is a worthy successor to the Henson legacy. However, behind the copious amounts of glamour, glitter, and computer effects, “Mirrormask” still falls prey to the same problems any other film does. What it makes up for with sheer visual magic it lacks in coherent plotline.
Stephanie Leonidas plays 15-year-old Helena, the daughter of circus performers who longs for an ordinary and normal life. Her arguments with her mother make her feel enormous guilt when her mother comes down with a mysterious illness during a performance one night. Stricken by the tragedy, her father’s circus begins to dissolve, and Helena herself falls into depression and angst. When she wakes up one night to find herself in a land of duality; The Kingdom of Light and the Kingdom of Darkness vie for ultimate power over the people, she takes on the quest of the Mirrormask, a beautiful object that can awaken the White Queen from her slumber, so she can drive the Black Queen away. Joining her is Valentine, a juggler, played by a fetching young Jason Barry. Together they go through the standard trials of a fantasy quest, and Helena returns home once she has set things right.
The acting in “Mirrormask” saves it from being “just” a kid’s movie. Gina McKee, who also plays Helena’s mother, plays both the Light and Dark Queens. The idea behind her playing both roles is to show that there are two sides to motherhood, and two sides to being a child. Helena, as well as her mother, has to learn how to take the good with the bad, and to balance both facets of existence in a way that allows her to grow up happily. Valentine represents Helena’s love interest. In fact, she occasionally peeps into the “real world” only to see another version of herself and of Valentine. Valentine himself is a complex character attempting to learn responsibility and maturity, struggling with the ideas of forgiveness and betrayal. Helena is played brilliantly by Leonidas. Though she’s a newcomer to the movie business, she gives a solid and lovely performance as a young woman who is lost in a strange land. Love, loss, and forgiveness and guilt are the major concepts behind this film, and they work beautifully to draw upon our emotions.
Now for the bad: “Mirrormask” uses computer graphic animation instead of Henson’s traditional puppets (though I am sure some traditional puppetry is used as well for some scenes). It’s almost overwhelming, to the point that often you feel oppressed by the effects rather than enveloped by them. The various effects make it hard to relate to the environment, and you’re not sure what to be awed by and when, since all of it is knowingly an illusion. Puppetry and traditional effects demand a higher amount of respect to the hardcore Henson fan, and in this case, they’ll be both impressed but disappointed by the lack of similarity the work poses to the Henson films of the 1980’s. The plot itself mirrors (no pun intended) “Labyrinth” and it’s predecessor, “The Dark Crystal”. Betrayal, guilt, and growing up collide with duality, good vs. evil, and sacrifice, and they all melt together in an uncomfortable way. The plot is often so confusing that most adults will find it puzzling, and most children will be exasperated.
Fans of Henson’s late 1980’s television series “The Storyteller” will be more pleased that any of his other diehard fans. Like “The Storyteller”, “Mirrormask” employs traditional fairy tale ideas, thanks to Gaiman, and a grim, urban, almost Burton-esque landscape, thanks to McKeon, that hints at an adult world masked (no pun intended, again) beneath the seemingly childlike exterior. Though baffling, “Mirrormask” is definitely an evolution in fantasy filmmaking, creating an entire universe that is forbidding but beautiful.