Like ye olde plays from Shakespeare’s time, MirrorMask begins with a whirlwind one-minute telling of the whole movie you’re about to see…via sock puppets. Swoosh tinkly music transition into a gorgeous paper cutout 3D rendering of the opening credits in the classic style of Dave McKean, the director and art director of this film. Neil Gaiman, who wrote the film, says that McKean’s storytelling abilities are better than 99% of the human population. Believe it or not, this is the first full-length film that Dave McKean directed, but when I watched it, it made me want to go into film arts as a career (though I didn’t). The whole movie is absolutely gorgeous, and even better when you know that each artist and student working on the film got to work on their own scene, so though while it was designed by McKean, each individual scene is modeled, textured, and rendered with a different person’s style, giving each location a slightly different feel.
Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) is a young woman, stifled by her lifestyle as a juggler in her parents’ circus. Although she is nearly grown, she feels like a child being forced into her father’s dream by her over-powering (though kind) mother. While other kids wish to run away and join the circus, Helena wants to run away and join real life. But before she gets the chance, her mother is stricken with a medical illness, possibly a brain tumor, and her ability to recover is undecided. A very real, emotionally visceral scene takes place on the balcony between Helena and her father (Rob Brydon) as Helena confesses that she believes her mother got sick because she shouted at her and threatened to run away from the circus. She has a momentary glimpse outside of teenage angst and sees how her words and actions can destroy the people and the world around her.
This is in stark contrast to the next scene where Helena has a loopy dream and wakes up to find herself in a slightly altered reality where some rehearsing circus performers in masks outside her grandmother’s building are killed by a viscous dark substance crawling across the ground. Helena and a juggler named Valentine (Jason Barry) hide in a junk room. This scene not only introduces Valentine and the darkness of this new world, but also weird little man-faced sphinx-cats, a spying spider, and the importance of books. The transition from real world–cold, sharp whites of Brighton–to the world of Helena’s imagination is slow, but once we arrive, it’s a whole new reality with new rules.
As Helena and Valentine hop a ride on some big books, we’re introduced to the mirror world, a world based on the drawings Helena had done on her bedroom walls, a world she first mistakes as a dream because she sees herself sleeping in a window (but later she discovers it isn’t herself in that bed at all but an evil princess that happens to look like her, who’s taken her place in the real world). The world looks hand drawn and is made with real things, not purely digital creations. The sky flickers, the lines vary in sharpness, and some of the people are made of shoes.
We stop for a moment to be introduced to Valentine, an Irish juggler in a purple mask and white flappy coat, probably not much older than Helena (though the actors are about 12 years apart). He very much represents the child in Helena. As an adult, he’s almost a psychopath, the way he immediately forgets his best friend who died, has too much pride to apologize, and hogs the cakes. But if you consider him no more emotionally developed than a six-year-old, his actions and eventual guilt make sense and you learn to like him.
In one of the best scenes of the film, Helena is escorted to the castle where the Prime Minister is on the hunt for a charm. The PM is played by Rob Brydon, the same actor as Helena’s father, and the White Queen is played by Gina McKee, same has her mother. Ahh, it’s the Wizard of Oz. Cue the backstory interlude told by more paper cutouts, of how the evil princess ran away from the Dark Queen and stole the White Queen’s charm, disappearing and causing the White Queen to fall into an unwakable sleep. If they could just get the charm back, they’ll be able to wake the White Queen and stop this darkness that killed Valentine’s friends from spreading over their whole world. Problem is, they don’t know what the charm looks like. This charm, then, signifies the thing that Helena is on the hunt for in the real world, something to wake her mother, but she doesn’t know what that would be or if such a thing can exist. It’s like searching for something smaller than a needle in a haystack when you don’t even know if you’re in the right field.
So the impossible quest begins. Valentine dubs himself Helena’s manager and they visit the library for answers. After meeting the Librarian (Stephen Fry) and partaking in a Pagemaster-esque scene with flying books and butterfly nets, the books work together to tell the fable of the creation of their world. Surprise, surprise, it was all scribbled together by a young girl with a pencil, and she made a city of front and a city of back–a city of light and a city of darkness. Helena checks out The Really Useful Book, which points them to the sign of the sun where the charm is supposedly hidden.
The next setting is guarded by a Gryphon played by Robert Llewellyn who, as according to Sphinx tradition, threatens to eat them if they don’t answer his riddle, but both Helena and Valentine are able to stump the self-important man-cat and visit the orbiting giants, who unveil the next bit of the puzzle: the charm is the MirrorMask, a mask that reflects yourself back at you, shows you want you want, helps you travel from one reality to the other. Ah-hah, so the charm can both knock the White Queen (aka Helena’s mom) unconscious and help her to escape home. The two are connected.
The best scene takes place at the mask shop where we meet batty old Mrs. Bagwell. She’s a cat lady (with man-eating sphinxes) and she’s loony toons up the head, but she does offer them some nice cakes. Now, the music of this film is phenomenal (credit to Iain Ballamy), but Mrs. Bagwell’s rumba in this scene, strange and wonderful, deserves a special shout-out. The record skips on “Don’t let them see you’re afraid,” which is echoed in both the Useful Book’s advice and Mrs. Bagwell’s warning as they depart, escaping the hungry little cats.
In a random scene that doesn’t add much to the plot, Helena meets some bird-monkeys named Bob (except one is inexplicably named Malcolm), and they help her escape the black juice and hide in the borderlands, the dreamlands. Helena hallucinates her mother, who thinks that this is her dream and that they’ve begun operating on her. She also conjectures that Valentine is a boyfriend she’s dreamed up for her daughter. Helena blushes. Only a moment ago, she was angry that looking through the window into the real world, she saw the princess snogging a boy. She’s not ready to grow up like that yet. But then why is she so anxious to run away from her parents and the circus? These are the troubles of being a teenager, ready for adulthood in some ways but still very much a child. With her imagination, Helena conjures up a little building full of keyholes. They have a key from the giants, but not enough time to try all the slots. The evil princess moves her little hut from the borderlands into the city of darkness by moving her drawings on her bedroom wall. Helena is hurt! Oh, no! Valentine offers to slip through the darkness like a dark, unnoticeable slippy thing to get help. But this isn’t his intention at all.
After Valentine sells Helena out to the Dark Queen in exchange for jewels, Helena is faced with the reality: the world isn’t falling to pieces because of the dark matter the queen is sending into the world. It’s ending because the princess left. “You can’t run away from home without destroying somebody’s world,” the Dark Queen tells her. This reflects Helena’s belief that her threat to run away is what is killing her mother in the real world. She has to find the charm, get home, and make amends, but the queen drugs her with fairy powder in the most beautiful and haunting scene in the film–clockwork jack-in-the-boxes sing “Close to You” slightly off key while dressing her up as the evil princess. Now black-eyed, Helena is the docile, malleable child her evil mother’s always dreamed of. In Helena’s most angsty moments, this is probably what she felt her real mother wanted of her. “Helena, juggle! Helena, sell popcorn! Helena, smile for the punters!”
Luckily, as Helena has been growing up emotionally, so has Valentine. In a rare moment of guilt, Valentine rescues her, snaps her out of her hypnotic state, and helps her find the MirrorMask, which was hidden in the evil princess’s bedroom the whole time. As they make their escape from the castle, Valentine happens upon the Future Fruit, which shares with him a glimpse of the future. For once, we step outside of Helena’s head and enter Valentine’s. He sees himself again betray Helena in order to escape to the real world, where, maskless, he’s forced into being a waiter. His mind returns to the present as he screams, “No, I don’t want to be a waiter!”
The Dark Queen chases them down and Helena screams to her that she must let her child grow up and become her own person, but the queen will have none of that nonsense–again, a reflection of how Helena views her own mother’s smothering love. Valentine, who keeps claiming that he’s a very important man with a tower, apologizes to his runaway building, which returns to rescue them. Another runaway, this one forgives his master/father, and all Valentine had to do was apologize, something Helena has been struggling to do with her own mother ever since she got sick. Finally, after a moment of hesitation, Valentine decides not to betray Helena again and lets her use the MirrorMask to escape to the real world, trading places with the evil princess.
The movie is bookended by another raw, emotional scene on the bright, white Brighton patio with Helena and her father. In the eternal moment of her father on the phone with the hospital, we watch Helena’s face as her mind flicks through all the possible outcomes. But, (spoilers) whew, they live happily ever after. In a scene that ends differently than the audiobook version, Helena meets an Irish boy on the circus grounds who’s looking to join up. “I’ve always fancied joining the circus,” he says. “That’s good,” Helena tells him. “You would have made a lousy waiter.”
If you like the look of this movie even half as much as I do, The Alchemy of MirrorMask is a great visual book.