Read First, Watch After: MirrorMask
Usually, the children’s classic comes in book form first and film second. Not in the case of MirrorMask, which was written for the screen by acclaimed fantasy author Neil Gaiman (American Gods) in 2005. After the movie came out and was such a smash, Gaiman adapted it into a novella geared especially for children.
In the beginning of the book, we meet 15-year old Helena just as she’s about to embark on a most amazing journey. Raised in a family of circus performers, she’s always dreamed of leading a more ordinary life. But when haunting music draws her into a strange and magical realm, one where anything can happen, her real life is stolen by a runaway from the other side. Helena must rescue the realm from chaos in order to win back her own not-so-ordinary life.
First the Book
Geared toward 8 to 12-year-olds (says the press release… but personally, I’m thinking 10-16 is a good barometer), MirrorMask is a “spectacular book, with its stylish blend of photography, paint, collage, and drawing that does not look like most children’s picture books. It bypasses the cozy, simplified clichés of child appeal, which makes it absolutely intriguing for youngsters. It is atmospheric, sinister, scary, and funny… This is a book for cool kids who will grow up to be fearless,” said the Sunday Times in its review.
Now the Movie
The film version, written by Neil Gaiman and directed by Dave McKean, is a stunningly cool example of how to make a movie for kids (it’s rated PG) that’s playful, dark, and mysterious, and never once dumbs anything down. It’s got a few simple little morals, it’s amazingly gorgeous to look at, and it’s effortlessly enthralling for 90-some straight minutes. Much of the movie feels comfortably familiar… yet it’s certainly unlike anything else.
Perhaps a bit too bizarre for fans of mainstream fantasy movies, this flick is equal parts wild adventure and lyrical allegory. MirrorMask is not afraid to delve into true “weirdness,” and this approach also serves as a sort of filtering process: If you and your kids make it through the first 30 minutes without rolling your eyes or scratching your heads, you’re well on your way to falling in love with this adorably insane movie.
As the film opens, we’re visitors at an eclectic little circus show. Our focal point is young Helena, whose Mum and Dad run the whole affair. More than a little weary of the circus life, Helena vents her displeasure by way of a rather unsavory argument with her mother. The verbal sparring ends with the most regrettable of childish exclamations: She wishes her mother were dead. A few short minutes later, Mom collapses backstage and is rushed to the hospital.
Mother’s ailment is never referred to in specific terms, but it’s pretty clear that her medical situation is pretty dire indeed. Racked with guilt and overwhelmed with concern for her Mom, Helena falls asleep one dark and rainy night… and awakens to find herself in an alternate world full of bizarre creatures, stunningly alien landscapes, and (of course) one clear mission: She must recover a magical charm that will allow the White Queen to awaken from her coma-like slumber.
Not Your Typical Fantasy
On the surface, the movie works as a rousing A-to-B-to-C quest adventure, but it’s mounted with such a dizzy devotion to unpredictable weirdness… this movie would never be produced by Hollywood. Ever. The symbols, metaphors, and morals are clearly constructed and astutely realized. MirrorMask is a movie for children (and children-at-heart) who don’t appreciate being talked down to.
The special effects technology used to bring this world to life are nothing short of dazzling. Computer-generated material is melded seamlessly with phenomenal practical effects (as if you’d expect anything less from the mad geniuses at Jim Henson Studios), and all of the astonishing bells and whistles are built upon a foundation of sincere heart, wit, and unceasing creativity.
The performers are uniformly excellent across the board; the flawless lead performance by young Stephanie Leonidas is an anchor that’s absolutely integral to something this fanciful.
Without a true focal point of actual humanity, MirrorMask would be little more than a flashy fireworks display. That this wonderful actress commands your constant attention, despite being surrounded by some of the most peculiar creatures and locations ever created, is a testament to both the performer and the filmmakers.
Frankly, I’m not a good enough writer to adequately describe all the wild magic that Gaiman and McKean have concocted here. Suffice to say that MirrorMask had me wide-eyed and practically hypnotized… kinda like we all were the first time we saw The Wizard of Oz.
Read the book, then enjoy this underrated, and still-hidden cinematic gem.
What are some of your favorite books adapted to film – or films adapted to books?
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